Bringing real food to Worcester’s poor – an update

By Rosalie Tirella

What happens if you’re a kid in the Worcester public schools and you’re hungry, but your mom is too proud to apply for the free school lunch program? What do you do if you live in the inner-city and want to buy some bananas and oranges, but there isn’t a supermarket nearby – just a little corner store that doesn’t stock fresh produce? How can you feed a family of five, if you’re low-income? More important, can this family eat well?

As reported in this newspaper time and time again, former Worcester city councilor Dennis Irish is one of the most compassionate guys around – dedicated to eradicating some of our most pressing social ills. When local Congressman Jim McGovern declared we – all Americans – would make hunger history, he called Irish to ask him to head up the Worcester effort. While McGovern toils on the federal level, he looks to Irish and the relatively new Worcester Food Policy Council to come up with effective local programs that can be applied and/or expanded nation-wide. The state of Massachusetts is also watching what happens in Worcester. Federal and state support could translate to more funding for Worcester’s most successful anti-hunger programs.

InCity Times recently sat down with Irish, Food Council members Jean McMurray of the Worcester County Food Bank and Christa Drew, the manager of the Food Council’s pilot programs, to talk about the Council’s recent effforts. Which programs are working? Which ones are being expanded? Are there any new programs that are fantastic?

An excerpt of our conversation:

Dennis: This loose collaboration of organizations that are concerned about or work in the area of hunger and nutrition was established in 2006 -The Worcester Advisory Food Policy Council. Jean and I co-chaired that. Our first initiative was to increase the number of summer feeding sit for youngsters.

Rose: How many are there now?
Jean: About 34, I think.
Dennis: We’ve tripled them over the course of three years.

Rose: Where are some of them? The Friendly House, I know … . The Boys Club …
Dennis: Parks …
Jean: The meals are delivered t o 34 sites throughout the city where kids come for recreation and things like that, where they can get a good meal. In some places they can get two meals -it might be breakfast and dinner or lunch and a snack.

Rose: How many meals were being served?
Jean: … the average daily number of kids increased from about 1,700 hundred a day to about 2,400 a day.

Rose: To be eligible, you just have to be a kid attending one of these programs.
Jean: That’s right. It’s for kids 18 years and younger. … There’s no paperwork – just show up.

Rose: And that’s great because it’s a continuation of the school year- eating right at school becomes eating right during summer vacation.
Dennis: As the school year ends, some of the children don’t have access to – their best meals of the day are at school. School closes and all of a sudden they’re hungry. So we wanted to expand the number of summer feeding sites [for kids].

Rose: So expanding the number of feeding sites, was your first goal. What next?
Jean: … [With a grant from Health Foundation of Central Mass] We designed a project called Hunger-Free and Healthy.

Rose: How much was the grant for?
Jean: The planning grant was for a $166,000, roughly.
Dennis: Through the end of this year the Foundation will have invested a little over $800,000.

Rose: And what are you doing with that money?
Jean: Our second year money was to [be used to] implement our pilot project called Hunger-Free and Healthy. We fund pilots first so we can learn what works and what doesn’t work, and then based on your pilot year, you can go and implement the project more broadly. We’re on our third year now.

Rose: What are some of the pilot programs and what makes you say “this works” – we want to make this available to everybody in Worcester?
Christa: What we piloted is slightly different from what we are implementing this year. … this year we have six different strategies that we are working on.

Rose: What were the successful ones?
Christa: Probably the most successful was …one of the adult skill-building classes, which was a cooking/nutrition and education. It’s nutrition-based cooking education and budgeting for low-income individuals. We ran two classes of this 6-week course. Participants learned nutrition-based cooking. They had all the ingredients there to cook the meals and were able to take home the ingredients and prepare [the meals] for their families at home. They went to grocery stores and looked at ingredients. They talked about labels … .

Rose: And where were these programs run out of?
Christa: Elm Park Community School. There were five or six different classes offered, but the cooking one was the most successful. There was also a gardening class based out of the raised-bed gardens right outside the Elm Park Community School. There was quite a bit of interest in that … . So we’re hoping that they’re based out of the Fanning Building [the old Girls Trade School]. There’s a kitchen space in there … .

Rose: Do people know the basics these days, like how to cook?
Jean: … I think people, for the most part, they know that fresh fruits and vegetables, they know what foods are good for them, but it’s more of a question of do they have access, can they afford the foods that are healthier? We live in a society where it’s all about convenience, and sometimes convenience has a down side to it. When it comes to convenience foods, they’re not the healthiest foods.

Christa: A lot of the people that came in, they did know how to cook for sure, but they didn’t necessarily know alternatives for using a lot of butter or eating really large portions of rice and beans or using a lot of salt. So the nutrition education piece was very important but also the visit that they [the class] took to the grocery store was really eye-opening in terms of the cost analysis of buying a head of lettuce versus a package of lettuce that’s already torn up. Talking about saving money … One woman [from the class] says she’s [now] saving $50 a week, and she’s a mother of five. Fifty dollars a week – $200 a month she’s saving.

Rose: This is all very hands-on.
Dennis: It was. Now we are in year three [of the grants] where we are actually implementing what we learned in the planning and the pilot years.

Rose: So those were the two more successful ones, which you are going to broaden – the gardening and the cooking/nutrition education classes. Now we’ve got year three. Dennis: Our program is called Hunger-Free and Healthy. There are six components to that … .
Christa: … this year we will continue to work on increasing enrollment in Food Stamps – now known as SNAP, Supplementary Nutrition . We’re interested in the federal nutrition assistance program, hoping to bolster participation in those because it’s considered a front-line defense against hunger.

Rose: How are you going to do that?
Dennis: First we’re going to the hospitals and to the two heath centers. When they’re enrolling people in MassHealth, we’re going to ask additional couple of questions to determine who might be eligible for food stamps and we’re going to sign them up for food stamps.

Rose: That’s great!
Dennis: The philosophy of Hunger-Free and Healthy – the opposite of hungry is healthy.

Rose: You can be heavy and still be malnourished … .
Dennis: Being obese is a consequence of hunger. … We start with Food Stamps. Part two of that is to increase participation in the school breakfast program specifically. There are a number of schools that don’t have – two schools in the city of Worcester – they are not maximizing their participation rates in the school breakfast program. We want to increase participation … and given the budget cuts the schools will face, we want to maintain the quality of those meals. As prices rise, people will try to spend their money on things that will fill you up. We need to make sure that as prices rise, they continue to spend the money on fresh fruit and produce, whole grains, beans and food that is healthy … .

Rose: So you’re going to be working with schools, principals …
Jean: It’s actually kind of a big community partnership. We want to be partners with the schools, we want to be partners with the hospitals, recognizing that we’re all in this together. We’re all part of the community and we all want to take care of others. … How can we make the system work more effectively and efficiently for everyone who needs access to these resources. It’s very exciting

Rose: Talk a little bit about bringing fresh produce to little inner-city markets.
Dennis: We’re going to identify five corner stores or bodegas in neighborhoods in the city of Worcester and work with them to encourage them to introduce more fruit and vegetables into their stores, improving access to whole milk and cheese – healthier foods in general. They’re in business. They’ll sell what people want to buy. Still, we’re not pointing fingers … we want to work with them, so we can help people to understand that they should be buying those kinds of products. And they should be available to them.

Rose: Who’s going to be involved?
Dennis: Five pilot stores.

Rose: If they’re Latino or Vietnamese stores, who’s going to speak the language? And there are cultural considerations.
Christa: It’s a community partnership, so we’re approaching the store owners and store managers, asking them if they would like to participate. … We have funding, we have incentives. We’re willing to help them obtain refrigeration, if that’s what they need to have eggs and milk available or fresh fruits and vegetables. To your question about different ethnic populations, we’re working with some community organizers who are bi-lingual or tri-lingual, who will be helping us gain a sense of what the residents actually want to eat. In one particular store it may be they really want to see bananas, oranges and apples. In another store, it may be mangos and papayas.

Rose: So you’ll be working with people in the community who speak Vietnamese or Albanian. …
Dennis: Sheila Dooley, from Pernet [Family Health], is a member of the council. And she heard about this initiative, and she said well, I hope you’re going to do something down in the Green Island area because we have several small markets down here that can benefit from this kind of program. So Christa will reach out to Green Island. Ray Mariano of the [Worcester] Housing Authority says we’ve got two markets that can [benefit]. … We’ve also said why don’t we talk about a corner store/market in the Grafton Hill area? The focus is very much on the inner-city.

Rose: That’s great!
Dennis: It’s city-wide, but the focus is on [inner-city neighborhoods]. You talk about the health consequences of food insecurity, more than half the kids in the Worcester Public Schools don’t get enough activity, don’t eat well, don’t eat right and, as a consequence, they’re over-weight. The figures for the minority kids are even higher. Sixty percent of the minority kids are over-weight or obese. They are not getting enough physical activity and they are not eating right. So consequently, their body weight is greater than it should be. There are health consequence to that.

Rose: How many people do you think you can impact with all of this?
Dennis: Actually involved in the programs? Hundreds. And those hundreds will reach out to thousands.

Rose: What about the churches?
Dennis: The faith-based communities are members of the Worcester Advisory Food Policy Council. …

Rose: Tell me about the last piece of this.
Christa: The farmers’ market in Main South. The Regional Environmental Council [REC] is a very active member of the council and … we were very aware of their efforts to pilot the farmers’ market last fall and how successful it was and how well received it was by the community. And we also became aware that they were seeking a paid coordinator to really dedicate their efforts to expanding this to a full season farmers’ market, from June through October, every Saturday, same location. So we were fortunate to be able to write this into our [grant] proposal. So that’s something that’s been funded as well. …

Dennis: … The purpose of this grant from the Health Foundation … our objective is to learn from these programs … and to use that to influence [health/food] policy development at the city, state and federal levels…. .

Jean: As soon as people hear about it, it seems they want to find a way to be a part of it – which is great. The more people involved, the more success. …

Rose: The economy is bad – we’re in a recession. Are you getting this from your programs?
Jean: … We [the Worcester County Food Bank] are now seeing about a 17% increase between December 2008 and December 2007. … Last year this network of agencies helped about 82,000 people – that’s about one in 10 people. … One in three children who live in the city of Worcester live in households that aren’t able to meet their basic needs. [This is] in Worcester, Fitchburg and Southbridge and Athol. … People who struggled before the recession, continue to struggle. Their struggle got a lot worse.

Rose: And people who just lost their jobs – their struggle begins … .

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