By Megan Graham
Most kids hate their vegetables. But for many kids in Howard County, fresh vegetables are a rare, appreciated luxury.
Joan Johnson, who works at Sunspot Natural Foods, said when she was growing up in a “not so great part” of Kokomo, the neighborhood kids would constantly get into her fridge to pilfer the oranges and apples that they wouldn’t get at home.
Today, even with the strong network of community and federal programs working to ensure that children in low-income families are fed, fresh foods are regarded as an unattainable or sparse part of the diet.
In Howard County, almost $2 million in food stamps were issued in September to nearly 15,000 individuals. Households on average received $293 that month, which Kokomo Urban Outreach Director Jeff Newton says is usually only enough for $1 per person per meal.
The Urban Outreach, Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, community garden and free lunch programs for students work to supplement that paltry sum with meals and food pantry items. Five years ago, the Urban Outreach began a program to supply “buddy bags” for Kokomo youth.
“We found that there were quite a number of children that aren’t eating much on the weekends,” Newton said. “They’re eating at school. But during the weekends, it’s little food. Especially at the end of the month, there’s no food, or very little, when food stamps have run out.”
Right now, Newton’s organization is providing those bags for 900 kids in Kokomo. And while they’re a necessary staple for those adolescents, Newton says they’re regrettably not full of healthy food items.
“Honestly, the food that we give them on the weekends aren’t the most nutritional meals, because we have to give canned meals,” he said. “We don’t give anything fresh, because we have no way to keep it. For the bags it’s almost impossible to do fresh things.”
But Urban Outreach does provide free meals when school is out, and fresh dinners on Sunday nights. Newton said last summer when Urban Outreach provided corn on the cob at lunch, he was surprised at what he saw.
“The kids didn’t know how to eat it, because they’d never had it before,” he said. “They were trying to bite it like a candy bar.”
One of the biggest problems for low-income families is that they don’t believe fresh food is affordable, said Scott Skinner, a registered dietitian who works with Bona Vista. He said that many spend food stamps on cheap food like crackers, donuts and cakes when they should be stocking up on in-season fruits and vegetables and whole wheat breads and pastas on sale.
“There are always fruits and vegetables in season; they’re always affordable,” he said. “The outside of the grocery store is the most healthy. The middle is where you get into the starches and junks.”
Linda Echelbarger, who works with Purdue Extension for the Family Nutrition Program, recalls a recent trip to the grocery store. While a fellow shopper complained on the phone about how his grocery bill got racked up for “only” purchasing chips, cheese and soft drinks, her bill was only nine dollars for a slew of fruits, vegetables and cottage cheese.
Echelbarger works with groups and individuals to teach what kinds of foods to buy and how to cook the foods obtained in food pantries or with food stamps.
“I can’t tell them not to buy soft drinks, but I can tell them what that does to you; it takes the calcium from your bones and it’s not as good as that milk you can buy,” she said. “That’s what I try to do. Try to show them, ‘You can do better.”
Echelbarger does at-home lessons on buying and cooking healthy. She also works with the food pantries to make the most of the options offered. She said she’ll call the Salvation Army food pantry and ask what they have in abundance. Then she’ll whip up something tasty using that ingredient for food pantry visitors to try and show them how they can make it themselves—whether it’s a three-bean chili or a nutrient-filled burrito when the pantry is teeming with pinto beans.
“It’s an incredible program,” she said. “It is just really the best thing going. It’s all free for them and they get so much information and just so much good stuff.”
Many states are considering cutting junk food and soft drinks from the list of foods purchasable from food stamps, especially with taxpayers absorbing so much of the cost of diabetes and obesity.
A study released this fall by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion said overweight children and adolescents with high sodium consumption were at high risk for high blood pressure. According to the study, children should reduce sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams a day—which equates to about a teaspoon of salt.
Echelbarger and Skinner believe the first step for changing the way many families view food is by educating children about eating healthfully. They say fast food and high-fat snacks may seem cheaper. But in the long run, they say healthy food will pay off.
Megan Graham is the Kokomo Tribune business reporter. She can be reached by phone at 765-454-8570 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.