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Wanted: Fresh, Healthy Food for Kids

Grand Vision group builds local economy with region’s bounty

December 8, 2010 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Zaidee Stroh’s healthy after-school snacks, prepared by chef Rick Klumb, may help her resist Type 2 diabetes.

Part Four of a series

It’s a daily ritual: Little Zaidee Stroh hops off her Suttons Bay school bus every afternoon, heads into the Leelanau County pre-school where her mom works, and gets a snack before the two head home to Traverse City.

When Zaidee enters the room, she lights it up with her sparkling eyes, pink dress, and big grin.

Her mom, Emily Stroh, is determined to keep her that full of life. But at 5 years old, Zaidee is a borderline Type 2 diabetic—a serious, chronic condition that national health experts estimate will affect one in three children born since 2000 unless adults work to prevent it. 

Health experts say one of the most important things Ms. Stroh can do to keep Zaidee healthy is to help her form healthy eating habits. Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables helps prevent a long list of chronic diseases and health conditions that are now prevalent in the U.S.: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.

But healthy food is often more expensive than fast or processed food and, despite her full-time job, Ms. Stroh doesn’t have much wiggle room in her food budget. She’s like a lot of people in northwest Lower Michigan who have incomes above the official poverty line ($22,050 for a family of four) but still don’t earn enough to make ends meet.

How many are “a lot” of people? The Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency and Poverty Reduction Initiative calculate that the Grand Traverse region’s cost of living is $43,080 for a family of four. Yet nearly a quarter of area households earn $25,000 or less. Recent average service-sector wages here were 73 percent of the statewide average. Ms. Stroh, in fact, earns just enough to disqualify her for a food stamp Bridge Card to help with groceries.

Laura McCain, a dietician at Munson Medical Center, sees stories like these, and it saddens her. She recalls one child who had diabetes who frequently ate boxed “hamburger helper”—without the hamburger. Such a starchy meal is not good for anyone, much less someone with diabetes.

“They couldn’t afford the meat,” Ms. McCain explained. “All they were eating was starch. Very little produce, very little protein. The cheapest way to fill a family up is with cheap, refined carbohydrates.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Across the country, including northwest Lower Michigan, vibrant “local food” movements are trying to make sure it’s not just children from comfortable families who eat the fresh fruits and vegetables that help young bodies grow strong. They believe families facing tight economic times should get healthy food, too.

These “healthy food for all” advocates include food pantries, health departments, nutrition educators, community garden groups, schools, farmers markets, human service agencies, faith groups, economic development agencies, municipalities, and nonprofit organizations. Their goals are front and center in the new Michigan Good Food Charter, a set of 25 recommendations that challenge state and local leaders to make food a policy priority. That would help local food and farm businesses succeed, and make sure the farm-to-table revolution includes youngsters like Zaidee. 

Recipes for Bad Health
In the Grand Traverse region, people work on these issues through the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network, part of the region’s Grand Vision initiative. The Network intends to increase the resilience and double the value of the local food economy; one of its three core strategies is making sure that everyone has an ample, high-quality, healthy diet.

A few local health statistics compiled by the Michigan Department of Community Health in its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey show how critical those strategies are.

In this region, 28.3 percent of adults were obese in 2009, up sharply from 16.7 percent in 1995. Another 37.5 percent were overweight. That means 65.8 percent of our neighbors have unhealthy weights, setting them up for more serious problems such as Type 2 diabetes. Meanwhile, only 27 percent of us eat the five daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables that health experts say reduce chronic disease risks.

Here is the poverty connection: The lower the income, the higher the heart disease, stroke, and diabetes rates. For example, between 2007 and 2009 about 8.8 percent of residents in northwest Lower Michigan had diabetes. But the figure rises to 11.6 percent for those earning between $20,000 and $35,000, and doubles, to 17.3 percent, for those earning less than $20,000.

Local charities see the impact in other statistics. The Father Fred Foundation, which runs the region’s largest food pantry, sees 400 families a week. And in two out of the last three years the Foundation has experienced increases of 30 and 40 percent in requests for help. 

In response, Father Fred started a program this year called Summer Boost for families whose children qualify for free and reduced-price lunches at school because they have such low incomes. The pantry recognized that these families have an even greater strain on their finances when school is out, because it means providing more meals for their children.

Summer Boost bags provided 1,056 families, representing 2,857 children, with extra protein, fruits, and vegetables. The bags included produce purchased from local farms by the nonprofit Fresh Food Partnership and produce from several farms working directly with the pantry.

Like all pantries, Father Fred relies on donations from grocery stores and food companies, and those won’t always be local products. But Father Fred is committed to spending some of its budget on fresh, local products.

“We are sensitive to all of the economic benefits of staying local,” said Martie Manty, executive director at the Father Fred Foundation. “It keeps people in jobs. And so many people are coming through and telling us stories of health problems, and they are also here to pick up food—it makes sense that the food that we are providing them be of the highest nutrition possible.”

Recipes for Good Health
Across the region, many health and human service advocates are embracing the idea that locally grown food can build health, economy, and community.

“I think it is so critical that we go back to eating the way we used to eat—eating whole foods as much as we possibly can and getting the processed foods out of our diet,” said Diane Butler, manager of community health at Munson Medical Center and the Northern Michigan Diabetes Initiative. “When you eat something locally, you know that you are getting something fresh, versus something that’s being transported across the country and being sprayed to keep it fresher. And, for me, it’s good to support our local economy.”

The Northern Michigan Diabetes Initiative, area health departments, Head Start, and other health, school, and human service groups are part of the Grand Vision’s Food & Farming Network. For example, they helped plan or financially supported a major “farm to school” conference organized by the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute and Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District in March. The conference attracted 400 people—food service directors, educators, farmers, school board members, parents, and students—to learn how to bring more locally grown food and good food experiences to schools.

They also supported a very popular, new event at the Northwestern Michigan Fair, Cooking with Kids. Amidst the cotton candy and elephant ears, kids and families learn from local chefs how to make smoothies, wraps, and pasta salad with locally grown food.

“I believe it is a piece of teaching kids healthy nutrition to prevent obesity, and thus prevent Type 2 diabetes,” Ms. Butler said of her group’s support of those events. “We’ve seen such an increase in Type 2 Diabetes among children. It is frightening.”

These organizations also help create simple, seasonal Taste the Local Difference recipes using local produce and other ingredients that, thanks to the federal Women Infant and Children nutrition assistance program, are now more affordable for many more low-income mothers and children.

Those other ingredients include eggs, milk, cheese, beans, and tortillas; health departments have been passing the recipes out to WIC families. The Northern Michigan Diabetes Initiative included them, along with MLUI’s Taste the Local Difference local farm guide, in a book bag of healthy eating resources aimed at lower-income families. MLUI also posts them for everyone on its localdifference.org Web site.

Other good places to distribute the recipes include area farmers markets, some of which are considering accepting food stamp Bridge Cards—and strategizing with MLUI about how to make such efforts successful.

“I look for opportunities not to reinvent the wheel,” Ms. Butler said about the collaborative efforts. “When I see something that I think is a good approach, I want to support it in whatever way we can. I think that’s why it’s really important for us to be involved in the Grand Vision. It has done such a nice job of pulling so many diversified groups of people together who might not have sat at the same table together.”

Rob Sirrine, agriculture educator with the Leelanau County MSU Extension office, echoed those views. He applauded “the whole rising tide lifts all boats mentality” of the Food & Farming Network and the Grand Vision. Helping farmers markets use Bridge Cards to reach more families is one good example.

“The more fruits and vegetables people are buying, the more farms are growing them, and the more farms can stay and be a valuable source of employment for people,” he said. “And then you don’t have the issues of sprawl and development. You keep farms on the land because you keep them more profitable. That is why the Grand Vision needs to be holistic and include all of these elements, not just transportation by itself or land use by itself. It is all related in one way or another.”

Eat Better, Do Better
Even though little Zaidee’s family doesn’t qualify for the Bridge Card, her mom nonetheless is getting healthy fruits and vegetables—and a love of eating them—to her daughter. 

Mom’s a teacher’s aide at the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians’ Benodjenh Center, a Head Start early childhood education program for lower-income families. Zaidee attended last year, before starting kindergarten.

The Center started a school garden to turn kids on to good food and nature, and the kids not only love watering it, they also watch proudly as their school cook, Rick Klumb, picks its fresh produce for their meals. Ms. Stroh also has farmers and gardeners in her family supplying her with the fresh fruits and vegetables Zaidee needs in order to be healthy.

“It seems to be helping,” Ms. Stroh said, noting Zaidee has stopped putting on weight since eating better. “I guess it’s true that when you eat better you feel better. She seems to have more energy and she’s very into fruits and vegetables now that she’s been helping in the garden. She gets to be a part of it and see where it comes from. And I know where it comes from. I know what’s on it, and I feel better.”

And Zaidee knows really good food when she tastes and sees it.

“She notices a difference when we go somewhere to eat and it comes out of a can,” her mom said. “She wants to know why it’s not bright green, like it is when it comes out of the garden.”

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist and former farmers market master, leads the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Healthy Food for All program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org. See Parts One, Two, and Three of Families on the Edge here.

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