Healthier Food, Healthier Lives

For the past several months we have partnered with the WVU School of Medicine in a program, unofficially named, “Cooking with the Docs.”  On the third Saturday of each month, a team of physicians, medical students and Med School folks turn our conference room into a kitchen. Over the course of a couple of hours, they prepare delicious and healthy meals built around food from our pantry and the community gardens.  Those in the “audience” ask questions and are offered samples of everything that is being prepared.  Then, at about noon, those who have “dropped-in” during the Saturday Safe Space Drop-in Center time receive more than samples—this becomes their lunch.

The focus is to help us all learn how to prepare inexpensive, healthy and tasty meals and comes out of the concern that we are an unhealthy state—37% of our population suffers from obesity (#1 in the nation) and 25% have been diagnosed with diabetes (#2 in the nation).  Studies suggest that the percentages are even higher among low income and food insecure families and individuals—those who receive food from our food pantry.

Recently, one of our member churches asked for a list of healthier foods so their members could begin providing food that might heal rather than hurt. The “Cooking with the Docs” team—Doctors Madison Humerick, Rosemary Cannarella-Lorenzetti, Chef Scott Anderson with input from Doctors Mark Cucazella and Dave Didden (Jefferson County Health Officer)—rushed to the call and provided statistics and lists of healthy foods.

We receive food from many sources in both large quantities to just a couple of items. We are grateful for each and every item that comes in our doors.  I have lamented that those deliveries don’t contain more chocolate chip cookies—chocolate being my favorite food group.  And, perhaps, many of our clients can eat cookies just like I did when I was much younger.  And, most assuredly, many can’t.  Those who can’t need perishable items like meat, fresh vegetables & fruit, cheese, eggs, full-fat dairy products and canned meat like tuna, chicken and salmon.  They also need whole grain bread, cereal, pasta & crackers, and lower sodium items.   What they absolutely don’t need are products with extra sugar like soda, juice, sweet tea, sugary cereal, candy, cakes, pastries, packaged fruit or hands full of chocolate chip cookies.

Why do we feel we need to do this?   One of our goals is to help clients move toward self-sufficiency and good health is part of becoming self-sufficient.   It is hard to contribute to family well-being when a person is suffering major health issues—even harder to achieve self-sufficiency.

Consider a pair of senior clients living in less than stable housing, many medical issues requiring the one worker in the family take off work to attend medical appointments for the non-worker, who is unable to work because both legs have been amputated due to diabetes.  Or a mid-twenties client who has been known to us for about seven years as an aggressive consumer of sweets.  This client lost a leg due to diabetes and is now complaining about eyesight problems.  And another a senior client who, despite medical advice to change eating habits, continued to consume sweets as often and as much as possible.  With a recent diagnosis of full-blown diabetes and a prescription for medicine, this client is now cutting back. Finally, a morbidly obese & diabetic client who lived in a car with two small dogs, eating whatever could be gotten from drive through windows.  Over time, this client had lost most available leg strength, was living in human and dog waste until hospitalized and finally died.

These clients may represent extreme cases or they may just be more well-known to us.  They also bear other health issues that impair their move toward self-sufficiency.  We know that many more of our clients struggle with these kinds of health issues that may well result in them becoming, “forever clients,” in part by what they take out of our food pantry.

“Forever clients” use up resources.  Every client in the brief stories above have had multiple EMT calls and trips to the ER, some resulting in longer stays.  Some have required multiple motel stays and all have required extra amounts of time and attention from our staff.  Our job is to maintain the safety net, yet it seems that we are, to some degree, complicit in prolonging their stay in that net and even creating more “forever clients.”

We know this is a process that must be rolled out with mercy and grace and that both time and good education is a must.  Our clients (can we do diabetes checks?) will be invited to learn more about their own health realities and how to use food to help heal rather than hurt.  “Cooking with the Docs” is a big part of that education.  Not only can meals be healthy and inexpensive, they can also be tasty.  And that education piece will also be part of our Monday after school Kiwanis program with “Healthy Snacks” on the xx Monday of the month. We plan to increase our food and nutrition coaching opportunities and be in close contact with the Mountaineer Food Bank, an organization that will be watching this move closely.

And, to all our donor families, thank you, for years of faithful and generous giving.  You have opened your pockets and your cabinets and have filled our shelves with food which has fed thousands of clients.  To our partnering grocery stores, thank you, for sending food to us almost every morning of the week.  To schools, businesses and other organizations that organize food drives for us, thank you, for your energy and commitment.  You all want what we want, clients who become more self-sufficient and you contribute one huge component of that, health and well-being.

We will soon publicize detailed lists of healthy food and follow that up with regular updates on what specific items we need the most.  And, to all, thank you for contributing to the health of our clients and to our community.