Healthy Food at Neighborhood House

Almost every day the news brings us more evidence of the poor eating habits of Americans. We’re no longer surprised when we’re told the top sources of energy for kids comes mainly from soda, pizza and desserts, or that 75 percent of health care spending goes to treating preventable chronic diseases, most of which are diet-related.

But what we don’t hear enough about is that the struggle to improve eating habits is not always about desire – it’s often about the difficulty people of limited incomes have in accessing healthy food. By some accounts, more than 50 million Americans, about a third of them children, don’t have regular access to nutritional foods.

Food justice is the term sometimes used to describe the effort to address that problem.  Edward Ehlinger, MD, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health, defines food justice as making “healthy food available for everyone, independent of their income, independent of their skin color, independent of where they live.”

To begin to solve the problem requires understanding it, according to Joan Schlecht, director of basic needs at Neighborhood House, who says there are many misconceptions about the issue.

For example, fast food restaurants don’t play as much of a role in the problem as some people think. “Fast food is convenient, but it’s expensive,” she says. “People may have fast food as a treat once in a while, but to feed the family, they are much more likely to grab a box of macaroni and cheese or canned spaghetti from the grocery store, and those aren’t healthy choices either.”

Often, Schlecht says, the only grocery stores that people of limited incomes have easy access to are “corner” grocers, and while those establishments may be important in their communities, they typically do not have the variety of fresh foods families need.

“When those stores say they have fresh food, they are often talking about just bananas, or they may have some carrots,” Schlecht explains. “The selection is poor, and usually what they do have is very expensive and can put a real strain on the household budget.”

That budget strain is a real issue, Schlecht says. “After a family pays for rent and other housing costs, they may have very little money left for food, and processed and ‘junk’ foods are the cheapest. They fill bellies – but they are not the most nutritious.”

That leads to another misconception. The prevalence of obesity in our society is not evidence that people have enough (or too much) to eat – it’s proof simply that they are eating the wrong foods.

That’s one reason Neighborhood House last year remodeled its Food Market at the Wellstone Center, and is discussing plans to expand the mass produce distribution program.

The revamped market is built around the Healthy Eating Plate, created by nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health and editors at Harvard Health Publications to provide detailed guidance, in a simple format, to help people make the best eating choices.

“Following those guidelines, people who come to our market first see fresh fruits and vegetables and then proteins such as meat and dairy,” Schlecht shares, “and only at the end are canned or boxed foods.”

In addition, a strong effort is made to have available foods that are culturally specific, she says, including different kinds of rice, beans and flour. The market is free to qualifying participants who are allowed to visit once a month.

The mass produce distribution is currently a seasonal program that last year operated from May to October. Neighborhood House works with Second Harvest Heartland and other organizations to make 10,000-15,000 pounds of food available – fruits and vegetables, but also bread – to about 250 households at each distribution event. The distributions take place at the Wellstone Center as well as Francis Basket, John A. Johnson Elementary and Dayton’s Bluff Elementary.

“It’s a great way to supplement a food market visit,” Schlecht states. “Families can get food from the distribution and it doesn’t count toward their food market visit – it’s just extra healthy food.”

Neighborhood House is exploring expanding the mass produce distribution program to year-round. The distribution events are at present held outdoors, so an expansion that would include the colder months would require an indoor location be found. In addition, Schlecht says, Neighborhood House would need to make sure it could find an adequate amount of food at a reasonable price. (Although some food distributed by Neighborhood House is donated, much of it is purchased.)

Besides food distribution, Neighborhood House also works to help program participants learn to eat healthy, through partnerships with the Minnesota Department of Health, the University of Minnesota and other organizations. “Food support is about more than just providing the food,” Schlecht says. “It’s also important to educate people about why eating healthy is important.”