School and community efforts help kids eat well on a budget
By Megy Karydes
For many families with school-aged children, the dreadful question during mealtime is chicken fingers or hot dogs? French fries or chips? What do you pack for lunch that will guarantee that your child will eat something so he or she isn’t starving by the time they come home?
While those options might be fast and cheap, and your kids will devour those cookies faster than a commercial break, the reality is that we are not doing them any favors by not encouraging them to eat nutritious and healthy meals. The average American family spends almost $3,000 a year eating out—one-third of its food purchases, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in the last month. Common, and often, legitimate excuses are that healthy foods are too expensive or too time-consuming for busy families to prepare.
Learning to prepare quick, healthy, affordable meals is a great way to save and improve your family’s diet. And there are several Chicago organizations that have made it their mission to help children and families discover how easy it is to enjoy fresh meals.
Creating a meal plan, cooking at home, stocking up on staples and swapping beans and lentils for meat are among some of the suggestions that Melissa Graham, founding executive director and head spear of Chicago-based Purple Asparagus, offers families.
“At Purple Asparagus, we’re fighting this [obesity] epidemic by educating children, families and the community about eating that is good for the body and the planet,” says Graham. “We believe that [all children] should have the chance to discover new-to-them wholesome foods that will change the way they think about eating and preparing food.”
Its flagship program, Delicious Nutritious Adventures, brings healthy foods to kids in elementary school classrooms all over Chicagoland by providing interactive and fun nutrition education. “During these lessons, students taste different foods and discover a newfound love of hands-on cooking,” says Graham. “They learn where the food comes from, why it benefits their bodies and how to prepare food in healthy meals and snacks. Written recipes go home to parents to be cooked again and again—bringing whole families back around the table.”
Purple Asparagus is an award-winning 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that is funded through private foundation grants as well as individual and corporate contributions. It gives priority to low-income schools for its free programs, which is usually between 80–100 percent of the schools it visits annually. For schools that don’t constitute as low-income, the Purple Asparagus program can be brought in for a fee paid by the school or it can be sponsored by a third party.
Sarah Elizabeth Ippel wholeheartedly agrees with the approach of educating children and families. She is the founder and executive director of the 300-strong student Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), a Chicago public charter school, which teaches students between kindergarten and fifth grade. Ninety percent of her students in the Southwest Side school are minorities, and 83 percent come from low-income families. Access to healthy foods is not always easy in these communities.
“We realize [that] challenges to accessing healthier options exist, so we try to teach our students and families things they can do such as grow fresh herbs in a container or plant vegetables if they have space outdoors,” Ippel says. “We all have the ability to take one more step to make more positive food choices, and that is what we strive to do everyday.”
As a charter, AGC receives funding from Chicago Public Schools (CPS), but approximately 25 percent less per student than a typical public school. Although it has a more financially efficient model, spending about 10.5 percent less per student, it identifies external support through grants and philanthropic sources, Ippel explains.
“It’s amazing to me to see the passion and enthusiasm the students develop when they have ownership of the plan, what we plant and what we harvest,” Ippel delightedly says, when she talks about her students’ active role in managing their community garden. “We often hear stories from parents [that] their child will identify healthier options at the grocery store or ask why [the] cart doesn’t include more vegetables,” she adds.
Parents are encouraged to attend educational events throughout the year, and recipe books of meals prepared in school are sent to parents in both English and Spanish so families can replicate the recipes at home with their children.
Children throughout the city of Chicago also can now learn about healthier food options through a class offered at 15 different city parks. The Chicago Park District (CPD) offers Fun with Food, a class geared toward children ages 6–12 that teaches them how to make healthier food choices, based on knowing what to look for in the grocery store.
“We created the class using the USDA’s MyPlate and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign, to help children increase their fruits and vegetable intake using fun and consistent messaging,” says class creator, Colleen Lammel-Harmon, a registered dietician and the wellness manager at CPD.
“One week, we will ask the children to bring in their favorite food, and we’ll break down the ingredients so they can get a better sense of what they are eating and what is and isn’t healthy,” says Lammel-Harmon. “Another week, we will create a mini grocery store and help them identify better options for their favorite foods.”
The goal, she says, is to improve their eating habits by discovering new foods and to be more aware of those habits while making the experience fun and interactive.
Preparing nutritious meals is much easier and costs less than prepackaged or fast food when children’s involvement in the planning is part of the picture.
Want more ideas on how to fill your plate with delicious and healthy food on a tight budget? The Environmental Working Group, in collaboration with Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters, created the Good Food on a Tight Budget shopping guide. Click here to download the guide before your next trip to the grocery store.