11 Feb Interview with GYFS/HSG Pilot Program Participant Demetra Hampton: Healthy Eating on a Budget
As a house cleaner and dog walker, Demetra Hampton typically works long hours to provide for her and her son. She must carefully balance her budget in order to provide for the household, but despite these financial limitations, she makes an outstanding effort to eat healthfully, integrating farm-fresh produce and nutritious ingredients into nearly all of her home-cooked meals.
Like many folks, Demetra’s number one concern is economics. She knows how difficult it can be to eat the recommended daily servings of fruit and vegetables when supplementing groceries with government food subsidies. And the already tight food budgets of such families were further stretched after Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) cuts took affect on November 1st. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a family of three or less now has $29 fewer per month, or less than $1.40 per meal, for each family member. Given these circumstances, it is easy to see why many believe preparing meals from scratch is out of the question, and instead turn to cheap, highly processed options and the fat and calories that accompany them.
However, despite economic barriers and little support from her family, Demetra has figured out a number of ways to integrate healthy foods into her diet. She discovered local farmers markets in the Washington, D.C. area that offer “double your bucks” savings for those on government assistance. Further, she took advantage of free cooking classes at Williams Sonoma and has been attending the We Can program, a weekly in-person nutrition group run by Unity Healthcare. It was actually through her We Can class that Demetra first heard about the GYFS/HSG pilot program, where she saw an opportunity for further growth. “I felt like I could get more information and recipes, and wanted to delve into superfoods and learn more about seasonal produce,” she explains.
It is this education around nutrition that Demetra sees as key to changing the habits in underserved communities. However, she feels that programs must be sensitive to the fact that not everyone has the same knowledge about cooking and about using different ingredients. “People need to be guided,” she says. For example, they “ need to be told how to work with tofu because it might be new to them.”
With basic instructions on how families can affordably integrate wholesome foods into their daily lives, Demetra believes it will become much easier to make better choices. How many families know that fresh vegetables are not significantly more nutritious than the frozen vegetables on sale? Or that dried beans are a better bang for your buck, compared to the canned alternative? Discovering cheaper options, such as buying rice in bulk, as Demetra now does, learning proper tips to preserve food so it doesn’t go bad, and utilizing new cooking methods for ingredients so less goes to waste are all ways families can eat well without breaking the bank.
And the need for this education is great. Demetra has witnessed firsthand the consequences of consuming unhealthy foods. She has had family and friends lose limbs and pass away prematurely from diabetes and other food-related illnesses. And yet, “they don’t want to change.” The same is true in her community. She remembers once boarding a bus in Anacostia where she “saw a man so obese that he had to use a ventilator. But in his other hand was a bucket of fried chicken.”
She believes the problem needs to be addressed at the community level. Doctors, religious institutions and schools must all be involved. Further, Demetra suggests accommodations be made for those with lower incomes. There should be more community based, in-person classes with advocates that are easy to relate to because, “we can’t make assumptions that people have access to a computer or the Internet.”
Lastly, the introduction to healthy foods must start at a young age. Showing kids how to grow and eat healthy foods at the community level and within schools is key to instilling lifelong healthy eating habits. Of the kids in her neighborhood, Demetra says, “They don’t know what to eat. The schools give the kids free lunches and try to make them healthy, but kids throw them away. They don’t know what the foods are. We need to find a way to normalize those foods.”
Hope Street Group Policy Insights by Chimdi Ihezie
While research has shown healthy food options may be more expensive, there are a number of alternatives that can make learning about cooking and nutrition and preparing healthy meals possible on a tight budget.
There are numerous resources online, such as the list by Better Homes and Garden for 20 Health Dinner Recipes Under $3, and free online cooking classes offered byChefSteps, which can also provide a community to motivate and encourage you on your cooking journey.
For those with limited access to technology or those who are uncomfortable using it, there are options within your community. Local libraries often offer recipe books for a variety of cuisines that can be borrowed for free and community centers are a great place to learn what health education options are available in your area. With effort and creativity, even the tightest of budgets can allow for satisfying, healthy and ultimately delicious meals.