Healthy Foods, Healthy Families
It’s hot. It’s next-to-a-parking-lot, three-o’clock-in-the-afternoon-sun, summertime-in-Providence hot. I’m sitting in the grass explaining to Bianca and Kimberly, two 10-year-olds from Guatemala, why carrots are good for your eyes, while Shelley and Mike and Laura sell their bounty of farm fresh produce in nearby tents. It’s summertime in Providence, and I’m at the farmers market.
Backtrack a bit, to a number of conversations I’ve had recently:
“So what were you guys up to this summer?”
“I did research at the hospital examining the neurobiological basis of Parkinson’s.”
“I helped write an iPhone app that will be used to track New England jellyfish populations.”
“I worked with my professor on data analysis for a paper on charter schools in greater Providence.”
“How about you, Maya?”
“Er, I hung out at farmers markets and played with kids.”
So no, I didn’t conduct cutting-edge research, and no, I didn’t have a prestigious UTRA, but I can honestly say there’s nothing else I would rather have done. And what I did was intern with Farm Fresh RI, a nonprofit based in Pawtucket that is dedicated to growing a just and sustainable local food system for growers, eaters, and the environment.
Among the many (many) programs that they run, “Healthy Foods, Healthy Families” is a free nutrition education program for low-income families with young kids. It runs from July to October at six farmers markets in Rhode Island, and this summer I was at four of them. So, four days a week, I’d help set up our big white tent as bubbling kids of all ages crowded around to taste the free sample or to start coloring in an outline of a carrot or cucumber or beet. One day I might help sign up new families and give out the bonuses for consistent participation. Another day I might be in 100% full-on kid mode, exploring the farmer stands with a trail of kids on a scavenger hunt to “find a fruit or a vegetable that looks like it came from another planet.” All I can say is - it was great.
But beneath the games of tag and the free tastings lie some very sobering statistics. One in seven Rhode Island families cannot afford adequate nutrition, and recent cuts to federal food assistance will jeopardize many more. Across the state, families receiving assistance consistently have to choose between buying food and paying for utilities, medicine, or housing. As someone lucky enough never to have been confronted with such a decision, I can’t even imagine what it would be like for this to be my everyday reality. Access to healthy, just, and culturally appropriate food ought to be a universal right. It saddens me that such a high proportion of Rhode Islanders can’t claim this.
Though the stated goal of Healthy Foods, Healthy Families isn’t to reduce food insecurity, the program is certainly breaking down misconceptions that fresh and local produce is only for rich people and that farmers markets are only for hipsters. The $20 incentive for every third visit to the program certainly helps, as well.
But what I really love about Healthy Foods, Healthy Families is that it doesn’t set out on a crusade to “teach poor people how to eat right.” At the heart of it, the program is simply a celebration of good, wholesome food. Instead of teaching USDA’s MyPlate, we encourage kids to draw pictures of their own plates with the new foods they tried; instead of writing up diet plans, we encourage parents to write down their favorite family recipes. And though it’s discouraging when the tenth kid in a row spits out the beet chip I just handed her, I like to think that the next time she sees a beet she’ll recognize it, take a chance, and try it again.
This summer has been a lesson in humility. It’s demanded my unwavering enthusiasm and tested my patience. I’ve learned more about food stamps, nutritional benefits of carrots, and Rhode Island geography than I would have in any classroom, and met so many amazing adults and kids along the way who share a passion for good, healthy food. So when I’m holding up a carrot in the afternoon sun, I’m not really saying, “Carrots are good for your eyes because they have this special type of nutrient called beta-carotene…” I’m saying, “Look! Carrots are awesome, and food is beautiful. Let’s celebrate it.”