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Feeding the poor: But is it healthy food?

It’s good to hear there are people seriously concerned about the menus at homeless shelters and meal programs feeding the poor.

Amount spent per meal at Ramsey County meal programs

For people in crisis, salad on the table likely isn’t first on their list of necessities. So it’s good to hear there are people seriously concerned about the menus at homeless shelters and meal programs feeding the poor.

Boosting the nutritional quality and attractiveness of foods served and keeping costs manageable are among the key goals of the Healthy Meals Coalition in Ramsey County and their 20-some members. Now they’ve banded together to share healthy recipes, buy collectively and set guidelines.

Their numbers are not insignificant. Meals for those in crisis dished up at 19 sites last year in Ramsey County tallied in at 1,066,000 in one of the most densely populated and racially diverse counties in the state in a challenging economy. A majority of those sitting down to eat there are African-Americans.  

People in crisis need healthy, tasty meals, including protein, fresh fruits, veggies and salads, and that’s what meal providers want to serve, says Julie Seiber, who is working with the coalition in connection with SHIP, a Statewide Health Improvement Program grant. 

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Given price constraints, (many small-budget non-profits spend an average $1.36 a meal,  less than a small latte at Caribou), it’s a challenge, even though food sources include Second Harvest Heartland food bank, discount grocers, donations from restaurants, bakeries, individuals, caterers and charitable groups. At least one meal provider receives fresh produce from a local church garden.

It’s hard to turn away food donations that stretch those dollars further. But what of foods better eaten sparingly? 

Take leftover sheet cakes, for instance. Yummy, yes, but also empty calories.

Coalition members, says dietician Seiber with the St. Paul- Ramsey County Health Department, are working on sample policies for such situations, a nice way of saying, “We really appreciate you thinking of us, but we don’t serve that.’’

The coalition recently hosted a class to pass along tips on stretching those dollars while varying healthy and tempting menus. That’s especially important in meal situations where volunteer groups sign on once a month to bring in meals.

Diners at one meal site were served chicken dishes 10 times in a row for lunches and dinners, Seiber says. 

Particularly interesting is the coalition’s research study completed late last year by health researcher Emily Torgrimson. Meal programs serve the sheltered and unsheltered homeless, abused women and children, teenagers on their own and persons with mental and chronic illnesses.

Real-people quotes throughout the report are revealing, including these: 

“I think the first thing they think about the most is getting income, getting a place to stay…Food is probably the last [thing they think about].” – Women’s Advocates

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“We get residents who come in who are stressed and they want to feed that stress. So I tell them, guys, as hard as it is and as much as I want to see you satisfied, I also want to see you healthy. I don’t want to see you eat bags of chips that have no nutritional value, just to satisfy the moment,’’ says a worker at Women’s Advocates.

“Volunteers say, ‘They just throw the [canned vegetables] away!’ And I say, ‘ Well, if you had canned green beans three times a week, wouldn’t you just throw it away?’ Or canned corn. Of course, they’d rather have watermelon and mangoes and blueberries and strawberries, the same things we buy [for ourselves] when we go to the grocery store.” – Loaves and Fishes

Poignant is this vignette:

“We had the salad on the table and a girl was sitting there. And her dad said, ‘I don’t eat that kind of food.’ And I said, ‘Just try a little bit.’ And of course, with ranch [dressing], you can eat anything. He tried it and said, ‘Well, it’s okay.’ To his daughter, I said, ‘Try this.’ I put a spinach leaf on her plate. She says, ‘That’s a leaf! Can I go outside and pick a leaf and eat it?’ And I said, ‘This is a special leaf, a spinach leaf.’ You know, if a family has not been exposed to certain foods, they’re not going to insist that their children try it.” – The Family Place