As a nutrition major at UMass, I always really hated the business kids. They never had any hard work to do, the classes we were forced to take in their department made me want to slash the projection screens in every building on campus, and they always seemed to be a little full of themselves and annoying. And then they would go off and make tons of money by exploiting people. It just wasn’t fair!
Turns out, business people can do something with their degree that pretty much makes them exempt from the “asshole” category for life: work at food banks. I’m not sure exactly what the program is (it might be through Feeding America but it might be something else…), but it’s like AmeriCorps for food banks! You get placed at a food bank somewhere in the US and you stay there for a certain amount of time using your business know-how to make these charitable organizations actually work. If you haven’t noticed, a lot of us with philanthropy in our hearts have no interest in the business side of things and often charitable organizations really struggle in that sense.
I found out about this whole thing because last week’s rotation was at Second Harvest Food Bank, a HUGE organization in the New Orleans area. This place has it all: a ginormous warehouse, an industrial kitchen, a teaching kitchen, education programs, meal delivery services, a huuuuge amount of volunteers, and an impressive full-time staff that includes volunteer coordinators, delivery drivers, IT people, communications experts, and more. They distribute food items to member organizations like food pantries and survival centers and other places that people in need can come get them.
They also cook and deliver meals for the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which is run by the USDA according to the same types of guidelines that are used for the National School Lunch Program (designated amounts of milk, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and proteins; and limits on certain components like fat, sodium, etc.). Because of the strict nutritional guidelines, RDs are important to have on staff to ensure that meals meet the requirements and the organization can get reimbursed by the government. Otherwise, SHFB needs to absorb the cost of the meal and when they are delivering thousands of meals during the Summer Feeding Program, that could sink the charitable organization. Nutrition professionals need to develop menus that are both feasible in terms of production and distribution and nutritionally adequate so that the kitchen staff is able to produce the meals and the food bank gets reimbursed. Recently, they have begun to send educators from the food bank to teach the recipients a little bit about nutrition.
One newer program that SHFB runs is Cooking Matters, which is a series of classes to help teach people to eat well on a budget, and how to cook. The idea is that healthy eating can be accessible to all people, if they understand how to use their dollars wisely and how to put ingredients together to make nutritious meals because the individual parts of a good meal are far less expensive than a healthy prepared meal (which is also far more expensive than a cheap and unhealthy meal).
So what did I do?
Milk Study One requirement of the feeding program is that kids NEED to get milk, either 1% or fat free. Currently, Second Harvest sends a little juice box of self-stable 1% white milk with all of the dinners that go out; but it has been noted that many go untouched. The issue is that each kid has to take one for the meal to meet USDA standards and therefore be reimbursable, but if they don’t want to drink it nobody can force them to. And the milk cannot then be collected, because that would be fraud. Nobody likes a fraudulent charity.
It has been suggested by some of the meal sites that chocolate milk would be more widely accepted and cause less waste. In order to determine whether it would be worth switching to chocolate, we needed to figure out a few things: how many kids drink the milk? How much milk is wasted? How many more kids would drink the milk if chocolate were purchased? Would anyone be upset if we switched to chocolate? If not many more people would drink chocolate, it would be best to stick with white because chocolate milk adds an extra ~13g of sugar which translates into empty calories. Additionally, constantly giving kids sweets to get them to eat it sends the wrong message – if things are constantly drowned with sugar, cheese, and other high-calorie flavor enhancers, how are kids ever going to learn to eat a balanced diet? On the other hand, the calcium provided by milk regardless of the sugar content is essential for reaching peak bone density.
In order to determine what to do, Jane and I observed one of the feedings and counted the number of milks consumed and thrown away, and interviewed the kids about their preferences. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but we determined that if half white and half chocolate were available, that would be best. Most of the kids didn’t like the milk because they are used to drinking whole milk (which I didn’t really think people did until I got down here) so the 1% tastes “nasty”. However, there were many kids who drink the milk and would continue to drink white if it were offered. Several of the kids who don’t drink milk claim that it is due to lactose intolerance, though the fact that they eat it with their cereal makes me think otherwise. We wrote up our findings in a formal document to inform the big wigs who call the shots.
Nutrition Education Jane and I were given the task of creating a lesson plan about any nutrition topic for a group of students at a school in town of unknown size and unknown age: we had to be prepared for anything. The topic we chose was fruits and vegetables, and I was the only one delivering the lesson. It ended up being pretty good! First we talked about the fact that fruits and vegetables are any part of a plant that people eat, and I challenged the group to think of fruits and vegetables in all of the following plant-part categories: root, tuber, seed, seed pod, stem, leaf, flower, fruit.
We then talked about eating a variety of colors and what the different colored vegetables help out with.
Our last activity was the game Imaginary Iron Chef (god I am so creative) where the kids broke up into teams and had to imagine a delicious dish that incorporated many fruits and vegetables. Their score was a combination of the number of different colors of fruits and vegetables and the “yum factor”, a 1-5 score given by their teacher. The winner was a smoothie that was described as “tropical and delicious”. It beat out another smoothie with tomatoes and olives in it, and mashed potatoes with lettuce.
Vegetarian Options With only a few vegetarians and strict rules about meat alternates and vegetables (beans can only be counted as a meat alternate OR a vegetable, not both) the vegetarian meals at SHFP often include a grilled cheese sandwich. Jane and I were asked to compile a list of alternatives that fit the guidelines didn’t require the purchase of special ingredients like meat analogues. We came up with several different options including southwest lentils and mexican lasagna…awesome. The one piece of equipment that is essential to this is the flash freezer, so a large batch can be made up and portioned out ahead of time, then used for a long period afterwards. Goodbye boredom!
What I will take away from this experience is that 1.) there are a lot of really great nutrition programs going on that I can get involved with in the future, even if not for my “real” job 2.) business majors can actually help the world 3.) it takes a LOT of organization, marketing, fund raising, and volunteer recruitment to run a successful nonprofit food agency 4.) I will never teach fourth graders. EVER!