My Experience on the Nutrition Education Team

By Kate Summers

While an acoustic guitarist sings country and gospel classics in the background, a young woman browses through neatly organized stacks of recipes. “Is this the soup we tried today?” she asks. “It was really good. I don’t think my kids would even mind the vegetables.”

It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry. More than 100 people from Oak Park and surrounding communities in Cook County have taken a number at random and now wait for their turn to walk through the pantry, impressively organized and housed in a local church basement. Twice a week, the pantry serves hundreds of area families produce, dry goods, meat and dairy products donated by local grocery stores, bakeries and residents, with supplements from the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer with the food pantry in a variety of capacities over the years, but for my service learning project hours I decided to focus my time with the nutrition team. 
The nutrition team is led by Maria Delis and supported by a variety of interns from Chicago area universities, and it continues to grow. It’s exciting to see that there’s been a demand for more education and emphasis on the kinds of foods we eat. One might argue that if people are in dire enough straits it doesn’t matter what they eat, but that’s simply not true. Without nutritional value, food can’t possibly serve the purpose it’s meant to. The nutrition team makes an effort to teach pantry clients the value of the food they’re selecting and how to make the most of it.

On a typical day, interns prepare short nutrition lessons; this might include handouts, posters and lectures about portion sizes, macro- and micronutrients, reading labels, budget shopping and food preparation safety. The talks are brief but direct and packed with little nuggets of information for clients to easily retain and utilize when they’re shopping in the pantry or on their own, and even later on when they’re trying to figure out what they want to do with the products once they’re in their own kitchen. The handouts are more concrete reminders of these lessons, and touch on all the key points so that they can share the lessons with their family.

Maria and the interns typically schedule anywhere from three to five recipes to share each month, ranging from seasonal soups and stews to salads, muffins, snacks, and even a classic “breakfast bake.” One of the go-to favorites around New Years (and revisited throughout the year) is a black-eyed pea salad. The traditional recipe speaks to many of the clients’ southern roots and is always met with nostalgia and happy reminiscence. It’s one also one of the most versatile recipes, which is something we talk to clients about a lot – how can you use what you have to make the recipe work for you? In this case, use black beans or chickpeas if that’s what you have. Swap out celery for chopped zucchini. Just because it isn’t exactly what the instructions call for doesn’t mean it can’t still be delicious. This versatility, and the ability to make the best of what you have, isn’t lost on pantry clients. And it’s this metaphor that strikes me each time I visit.

The fact is no one wants to be in the position where they have to visit a food pantry. It’s not ideal, and it’s not always easy to swallow your pride and do what you have to do to get back on your feet. But every single person who walks into the pantry walks out with their head held high and a smile on their face. There is a sense of gratitude and an appreciation that makes everyone present, clients and volunteers alike, feel proud to be a part of the little community.

As a volunteer, I learned so much more than I ever expected to. Right from the beginning, it taught me that anyone could find him or herself in a position to need a food pantry. It doesn’t discriminate by gender, age, race, education level or income bracket. Most people are only a paycheck or two away from needing assistance, and with the economy as fragile as it’s been in recent years, many have found themselves in that very place.

It also became clear to me that, while it’s one thing to provide food to people in need, the kind of food you provide can make all the difference. All food is not created equal, and if we’re sending people home with food that is totally devoid of nutritional value, we’re really not doing them any good. Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry prioritizes fresh produce, lean meat and dairy, and other good sources of protein like beans. The nutrition program builds on this; by showing clients how to create recipes using ingredients they’ll find in the pantry, they’re not only more likely to try new things; they actually get excited about being in the kitchen creating a meal. Recipe demonstrations, passing out samples and sharing recipes gave me face time with clients and gave them a chance to get excited about food again.

Another key aspect of the nutrition program is encouraging clients to choose items that are lower in sugar and sodium – whether it’s when they’re browsing through the pantry or making decisions on their own. Many are facing health problems that may be directly related to deficiencies in a healthy diet; too much cheap, processed food that leads to diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. For many clients, the nutrition program at the pantry is their primary source of education about the products they choose and food they feed themselves and their families. With this knowledge in place, they’re one step closer to feeling good and getting back on their feet.

It was an incredible experience to work that closely with pantry clients. Every visit was met with conversation and discussion of some kind, and the reminder that food really is something that can bring us together. It’s a human need, and everyone deserves the opportunity to have healthy options available. By supporting our food pantries we indirectly support education and wellness, both physical and mental – even spiritual, as evidenced by the gospel singing often happening in that church basement.

I am grateful for the time I spent working with the nutrition department of the food pantry and look forward to future opportunities with the team. Helping to educate neighbors and have real conversations so that they can better care for themselves truly does have an impact. No one should go hungry for food or support.