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A Good Food Road Show

Chefs, agencies, grocers help strapped families “go local” at dinner table

January 5, 2010 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Carl Hawkins
  Chef Eric Patterson of Traverse City’s The Cook's House showed kids at the Northwestern Michigan Fair that local fruits and vegetables are fun to prepare and eat.
It was a fair, of all places—home to cotton candy, corn dogs, elephant ears, and carnival rides.

But in a quiet gazebo sheltered by shade trees, it was four chefs, not carny barkers, who excited many youngsters at the Northwestern Michigan Fair’s first-ever Cooking with Kids session. Amidst all the high-fructose distractions, the chefs turned the kids on to the flavors of vitamin-packed, fresh fruits and vegetables grown by local farms.

“What color do you think this is going to be?” Chef Ted Cizma of the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa asked the kids crowding around his table as he whirred up the ingredients they’d helped put into a blender for smoothies.

“Like a rainbow,” one child answered, eyeing the carafe filled with cherries, blueberries, golden honey, orange juice, green tea, and white yogurt.

Elsewhere in the gazebo, the three other chefs helped other kids make wraps or pasta salads, using everything from local carrots and broccoli to peaches and applesauce. There were young smiles in all directions.

Now, this “good food” show is going on the road. Next up: Head Start, a pre-school program for children of families with low incomes.

It’s all a part of an effort by the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, publisher of the annual Taste the Local Difference farm and food guide, along with Head Start, health departments from around the Grand Traverse region, and other health advocates. The goal: help low-income families eat healthily, affordably, and seasonally by using the region’s abundant produce.

Joining the new effort is a local grocery chain, Oleson’s Food Stores, and a budding volunteer chef corps that includes Mr. Cizma and the other chefs at the fair: Jennifer Blakeslee and Eric Patterson of the acclaimed, six-table Traverse City restaurant, The Cook’s House; and Laura McCain, chef and dietitian with Munson Healthcare’s Food and Nutrition Services department.

The new nutrition road show was spurred partly by a new federal policy that, as of this fall, provides young, low-income families—many of them in Head Start—with monthly stipends to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. This assistance via local health departments intends to boost the nutrition of pregnant and breast-feeding women and their children ages one to five.

Called the Women, Infant and Children Program, or WIC, it long has helped young, low-income moms buy cereal, milk, eggs, and cheese. Now it’s helping out with fruit and vegetable, too.

The change came after a national Institute of Medicine review of WIC pointed out that, according to current science, we all need to eat more fruits and vegetables for good health. But, some health advocates say, that is difficult for many low-income families, because fresh produce is more expensive than boxed, starchy, processed foods.

Win, Win, Win
The new WIC policy means a woman with one young child will have at least $14 a month to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s not a lot, but it’s $168 a year, far more than another federal program, Project Fresh, gives to WIC families—a $20 annual coupon for farmers market produce. For Benzie, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau Counties alone, the new WIC money adds up to about $210,000 in new spending power for fresh produce, and $14.4 million a year in Michigan.

But would these families be interested in “buying local”?

MLUI, in collaboration with Head Start and the county health departments, conducted surveys and focus groups with families to find out. Overwhelmingly, they said “yes,” and for the same reasons one usually hears—local food is fresh and flavorful, grown by people they trust, and helps the local economy.

But families also said they needed tips on cooking from scratch and in season. They added that it would help if stores clearly labeled locally grown food. Some said they’re hooked up to the Internet, if only at the library, so online promotion of the fresh, local products the stores offer would help. Health departments, meanwhile, said they could print out such online availability lists for those without computers.

Brad Oleson, co-owner of Oleson’s Food Stores, the largest grocer working with MLUI’s Taste the Local Difference marketing program, agreed to do what he could. He already uses the program’s price signs in his stores to plug local produce; now he’s adding information about locally grown products to his Web site.

In addition, Mr. Oleson worked with MLUI to locate additional farmers that have products that WIC families said they’d like to see more often. He said he sees young WIC families as valuable customers, and is pleased that WIC now helps them buy fresh produce.

“It’s win-win-win, right from the farmers up to us at the grocery store to the families,” he said.

The families think so too, said Melissa Goodchild, a dietician at the Grand Traverse County Health Department. The department provides families with Taste the Local Difference recipes, the farm food guide, and nutrition information about locally grown products. In November and December, her department provided lots of information about winter squash and pumpkins for holiday meals.

“Most of them have been very excited,” she said of her clients. “And I am really excited. I’ve heard a lot of feedback from clients that it was just too expensive to eat healthy. So this gives them an open door to try new things.”

Learn by Doing
But trying new things means learning new things. That is why Kathy Kundrat, director of the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency’s Head Start program, said bringing chefs to Head Start is important: It helps families form healthy lifetime eating habits, early on.

“This is a great opportunity for our families,” Ms. Kundrat said. “It is just wonderful that these folks are willing to do this.”

Laura McCain, the Munson dietician, is excited too. She’s the first volunteer chef to lead a Head Start Family Fun Night cooking class, which ends in a shared meal. She’ll help families tweak recipes for a layered salad and a quick minestrone soup—adding or substituting seasonal fruits and vegetables such as squash, onions, and apples for non-seasonal ingredients.

“One of my goals is that they can go home and feel confident that they can put a balanced meal on the table in a half an hour,” Ms. McCain said. “They don’t have to follow a recipe rigidly. They don’t have to have a recipe.”

Munson and the company she works for there, Sodexo, allow her time to do this, she said, because the hospital is about health care. She recalled counseling a family whose daughter has diabetes. They frequently ate boxed “hamburger helper,” but 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.”

The Grand Traverse Resort’s Chef Cizma said his childhood inspired him to volunteer his services. He grew up one of eight children on the southwest side of Chicago, where his father and grandfather ran a grocery store and butcher shop. His grandfather lived next door, and cousins down the street. Everyday, there was a communal meal, with his father and grandfather the lead cooks.

“You don’t just throw together a meal for 15 people,” he said. “You do it with planning. I don’t want to teach families how to make gourmet meals, but rather how to handle fresh produce—how to buy it, how to store it, how to prep it. If you plan your meals it becomes much easier.”

And as a father of five, he’s convinced that children do better with good nutrition.

Meanwhile, Chef Blakeslee of The Cook’s House hopes to show busy parents how to make cooking with kids a fun, family activity that would take just about as much time as driving to a cheap fast food restaurant for dinner.

For example, she said, making pasta is seen as “gourmet,” but, really, it’s simple. Mix flour, which is inexpensive, with water and eggs, which are in the WIC benefit package, and then let the kids roll it out with a simple drinking glass. They can cut it into whatever shapes they like. In the fall, they can roast winter squash and add it to the dough.

“My daughter loves to crack the eggs,” she said.

This article first appeared in the Holiday 2009 edition of Edible Grande Traverse. Diane Conners leads the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Healthy Food For All program. Chefs interested in volunteering for the new chef corps to teach children and families about cooking can reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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