Healthy food choices gain value in string-along economy

Story and photo by FLOR OLIVO

As families hang on during the economic crisis many opt to cut down on food budgets and, in doing so, healthier diets.

A woman reaches for fresh fruit at a gas station in Utah.

Support program organizers say creativity, education and knowledge of existing food aid options are key to good nutrition for families passing through hard times.

Research shows good nutrition matters for growing children. Diets high in fat and sugar reduce a child’s ability to learn, focus and remember. Activity and energy levels are also affected.

The federal government has numerous programs geared towards nutrition. Grants for research funding on topics of healthy diets continue to roll out. In 2010 the Food Assistance and Nutrition Programs (FANRP) and the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) created a foundation geared toward the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s child nutrition programs. The research included “incentivizing fruit and vegetable consumption in elementary schools, testing food choice innovations for middle school cafeterias, and drawing attention to healthy choices with lighting,” among others. The grants ranged from $1 million to $25,000 per award.

In 2009 the economic stimulus package increased food stamp benefits by about 13 percent enabling families to receive more money for food.

The same year, the Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) served more than 87,000 households, setting a record for the state. In 2010, the average food stamp caseload rose over 130,000.

There is concern and assistance is available but some say it lacks during transitional periods. “Transitional help is needed as families are struggling to make it,” Head Start Family Advocate Heather Johanson said.

Some parents in the program will turn down small raises to ensure they don’t lose food assistance. Many parents are in survival mode. When faced with decisions like good nutrition or paying the rent, food budgets get sliced. Buying “fast food” or prepared meals becomes easier and less expensive with two parents working, concluded Johanson.

Myriam Saavedra, a Jordan school district instructor who works with families daily, says economy is only one aspect of nutrition. Saavedra raised 5 children of her own. She experienced the struggles of concocting healthy meals and believes when budgets are tight, good options and creativity go a long way.

“For example, rice and beans are inexpensive, they have protein and carbohydrates,” Saavedra said. “Add orange juice, rich in Vitamin C, your body will absorb the iron in the lentils and you have a decent lunch. Someone that hasn’t taken a nutrition class would not understand the value of this meal.”

Programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC) seek to bridge these educational disparities in underprivileged communities by providing assistance with supplemental foods. To receive benefits, qualified participants are required to take nutrition education classes, have iron and weight and height checks and a short meeting with a nutritionist on each visit.

Full-time mother, Jodi Spencer, feels that healthier food choices save money in the long run.

“Healthy food is more expensive, but you have to look at is as an investment,” insists Spencer. “It’s two-fold: your health will be better, less obesity, less doctor visits, etc., and that will, in the end, cost you less, and secondly, if more people opt for organic, non-genetically modified foods, the demand will be higher and the prices lower.”

In the state of Utah there are non-conventional options. Food co-ops are an increasing trend that helps curb costs for those who do not qualify for government help. Participants buy in for $24 and receive one meat share and one produce share. The meat share includes an alternating portion of ground beef, beef cubed steaks, pork ribs or chicken breasts. Produce share has five varieties fresh vegetables and three varieties of fresh fruit.

Most federally funded programs like WIC, Head Start or food stamps include resources for healthier meals. The Utah Department of Health website has information on local WIC offices where women and children can apply for services. Families can apply for food stamps at the DWS office or by visiting DWS’s website. For those who do not qualify for government assistance, the Utah Food Co-op can be helpful.

Overall, the concern for good nutrition for our children exists. Learning the options then making good choices trickles down to us.