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Access to food isn’t enough — we need programs to teach families how to prepare healthy meals

There’s only so much good that can be done by giving someone a bag of fruits and vegetables if they do not know how to make it tasty for themselves or their family.

As everyone is well aware, the Great Recession that characterized the end of our first millennial decade caused hardships for most Americans. However, those who faced food security issues were faced with the dire problem of figuring out how to continue to feed themselves and their families with a thinner pocket book. No parent wants to send a child to bed or school hungry, but in some families this is inevitably what happens.

Gina Allen

According to the Center for American Progress, food insecurity — lacking consistent access to healthy, affordable food — cost Minnesotans around $2.25 billion in 2010, up from $1.93 billion in 2007, in lost economic productivity, higher public education costs, charity and preventable health care costs. Clearly, this is no small matter that we can afford to brush aside.

The past few years have seen a handful of initiatives to expand access to nutritious food to Minnesotan families. In 2010, benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) began to be accepted at the Minneapolis and Northeast farmers markets and that program since expanded to include 13 additional farmers markets across Minneapolis (Midtown Farmers Market has accepted them since 2006). While obtaining food is undoubtedly the first step toward full bellies, it is by no means the only factor.

Anyone who is in charge of putting dinner on the table will tell you that the preparation of a home-cooked, nutritious meal is much more time consuming than throwing together a processed supper or buying fast food. Keeping this in mind, parents are at the mercy of time constraints and for those with less experience cooking fresh produce, the learning curve can be steep and time intensive. They may not be able to devote an evening to meal preparation, which may lead to falling back on what is familiar and fast, often frozen dinners or a fast-food chain.

More attention must be directed toward educating families in the preparation of healthy food. There’s only so much good that can be done by giving someone a bag of fruits and vegetables if they do not know how to make it tasty for themselves or their family. As a state, we must find a way to provide resources for healthy food education and preparation in our communities.

One step toward this goal would be to institute food education curriculums in schools. This would allow children to learn about healthy choices and how to cook and enjoy fresh produce from an early age. Also, offering community programs (particularly during evenings and weekends) in which families can learn to prepare a healthy meal together will encourage healthier food choices and take some of the edge off of cooking with unfamiliar food items. An added benefit is that this level of engagement is sure to foster healthy family interactions as it spreads ownership of the meal across the familial spectrum.

Controlling the costs of hunger and ensuring the right to high-quality food for all citizens will benefit all Minnesotans. The rising monetary and social costs of food security are not sustainable. For Minnesota to prosper as a state and reduce the direct and indirect burdens associated with food injustice, the lack of educational resources surrounding food must be addressed.

Providing families with the necessary tools to feed themselves and their families goes beyond the procurement of foodstuffs. A more encompassing view of what is needed to actually get the food on the table is needed.

Gina Allen us a student in the Master’s of Public Health program at the University of Minnesota.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by David Koller on 12/15/2014 - 09:21 am.

    Anyone who is in charge of putting dinner on the table…

    I really liked your post and believe in it. The one thing that caught my eye was the time to put dinner on the table. It does take time and one does need to have some basic skills to do it. But the savings in dollars can also be great over processed or fast food. It is a difficult situation but educating people about and emphasizing the convenience, value, and health of making your own meals is critical to long-term success.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/15/2014 - 11:14 am.

    Back in the olden days, we had required home ec. classes

    in junior high. Between the present-day lack of home ec. classes (my old school system no longer offers them on any level) and the failure of older generations to pass on cooking skills, we have a generation or two that wouldn’t know what to do with a raw onion.

    Maybe some of the time devoted to passing standardized tests could be put to better use teaching the students to prepare a meal from scratch. That’s a skill that everyone, rich or poor, male or female, can use.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/15/2014 - 01:00 pm.

    That’s one of the reasons we have cookbooks.

    Learning to make a meal from scratch is not difficult and need not be time consuming. There are any number of well written, easy to understand books detailing exactly how to prepare anything and everything one might wish to eat.

    Before we add yet another task to our already overwhelmed schools, perhaps we should simply encourage people to visit their local libraries.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/19/2014 - 03:06 pm.

      I once had a graduate school roommate who had grown up

      in boarding schools and college dorms and had never had to cook or pay much attention to cooking. She joined our household of three, which took turns preparing dinner for the whole group, and we insisted that she join the rotation. But those first few meals were painstaking affairs, because despite our fairly large collection of cookbooks, there was a lot that she simply did not understand about the instructions. She required a lot of coaching before she could prepare a meal independently.

      Just as an example, she didn’t even understand that certain items are staples in any kitchen, so when we made our weekly shopping trip, she would add things like “1/8 teaspoon of salt” and “1/2 stick of butter” to the shopping list.

      I think that some of us forget how much we learned from family members and school home ec. classes before we ever opened a cookbook.

  4. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 12/15/2014 - 01:56 pm.

    food shelf

    A county food shelf director said this also was a big problem for their clients. They didn’t know how to cook and always wanted convenience foods, which the food shelf didn’t have.
    In addition, I don’t think many of the food shelf clients had proper pots and pans or a stove on which to cook. It'[s also likely they can’t read a cookbook.
    However, Karen’s idea of bringing back required home economics classes in junior high is the best idea yet.

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/15/2014 - 02:16 pm.

    Time, and…

    Having access to good food is essential and having time and skills to prepare said good food is critical. However, it’s more complicated than that.

    Many people receiving food assistance know, on some level, that their food choices affect both their pocketbooks when purchasing, as well as their health later. Yet, they are the most likely to make poor food choices. It’s not just time and money, either. While those who are not eligible for food assistance make the healthiest choices (though, not overall that good), suggesting a role in income, it’s not just because they’re wealthier or better educated. In some ways, those that are eligible for food assistance are better educated about food choices than those that aren’t (ask how many milk servings are recommended and lower income individuals are more likely to get it right).

    However, what’s particularly interesting is that those who qualify for food assistance and actually use food assistance programs have worse eating habits and health outcomes than those who qualify and DON’T use them. Why? If it was just about money and time, it would be expected that the food choices and health outcomes would be similar. It seems as though no one has the time, inclination, and/or energy to really eat well–that went away with the ability to support a family on a single income–but it also seems that those who receive food assistance also suffer from a fatalistic view of their lives. They feel less empowered to change poor outcomes, and have thus given in to the “inevitable” poor health.

    Whether those on food assistance are on food assistance due to this view or if the view arises from being on food assistance is impossible to determine from the data available. But it would seem that mass depression may have a good bit to do with poor food choices as time and money.

    Maybe by approaching the problem with solutions that address the cause of this fatalistic view will have more impact than education alone. After all, these people are neither completely uneducated nor stupid.

    It would seem that community building and public engagement are necessary for a whole lot of things. People who feel empowered are more likely to make better choices. To that effect, it’s time to recognize that minor crimes committed as a result of poverty shouldn’t be treated like felonies. In addition, a felon who has served his/her time should be able to vote. Finding clever and innovative ways to address specific issues of poverty could help. Some people are putting stores with good and affordable foods near places of mass transit–in places like NYC.

    An effort to put affordable and good food into neighborhoods here would be a step–people who have to arrange for transportation (e.g., having to take a bus) to get to a grocery store are more likely to buy foods with a long shelf life because it’s a huge pain in the butt to get to a grocery store, so they do it less often. Finally, giving people back time to spend with their families would be a good thing. Classes or events in neighborhoods that can be attended by adults and children that provide a learning environment for cooking as well as eating would be great. One further step down would be to put together portioned ingredient kits for people along with specific preparation instructions takes out the problems of knowing what ingredients are needed and getting to/from a grocery store. Finally, if that’s not possible, providing healthy meals, rather than just ingredients, for slightly more than the cost of the ingredients would help.

    A final part of the problem that can’t be forgotten: people who have not eaten well will prefer foods that are not good for them. You don’t go from eating Big Macs to eating broccoli without wanting a french fry or 30 fairly frequently. This must be acknowledged and worked with. You can’t expect that, just because a person has a new found understanding of food and how to prepare it that they’re not going to want what they’ve been previously eating.

  6. Submitted by Laura Bohen on 12/17/2014 - 10:13 am.

    Growing movement around importance of food skills & food access

    Thank you for bringing people’s attention to this important topic. I wonder if you have read about or seen information regarding the launch of Minnesota’s Food Charter? As a blueprint for the entire state’s food system, it focuses on 5 key areas: Food Accessibility, Food Affordability Food Availability, Food Skills, and Food Infrastructure. Many advocates and people involved in Minnsota’s food system met in Duluth just this fall to witness it’s launch, and have conversations about how each of these 5 aspects must be in place in order to ensure a healthy, sustainable and equitable food futures for all Minnesotans. I’d encourage anyone interested to find out more information here: http://mnfoodcharter.com/the-charter/

    Additionally, I hope you connect within the University itself to the Extension programs in Health and Nutrition. Someone already commented about EFNEP, but extension also provides food skills classes through it’s SNAP Education program. SNAP stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as ‘food stamps’ and funded by the USDA through the farm bill. Extension’s SNAP Educators provide low-income populations across Minnesota the education they need to create healthy meals, to budget their food dollars, and increase their physical activity. Those interested in learning more about SNAP Ed and Extension’s other Health and Nutrition programs should check out their website: http://www.extension.umn.edu/family/health-and-nutrition/

  7. Submitted by Samreen Simi on 05/20/2015 - 05:02 am.

    Health is Wealth

    It does not mean that you have food so you have a good health, if you have food and know how to use it or when to take food this is matter a lot on health, thanks for this very helpful and interesting article. The other thing that one should take care about is to take top quality food products.

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