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Thursday, May 26, 2016 12:01 am

Produce trailer heads into the food desert

Many people just don’t know what to do with fresh food

genHkids’ mobile food pantry at MacArthur Park Apartments.
PHOTO FACEBOOK.COM/GENHKIDS

 

There are a lot of things about cooking that makes it hard. I try to be very conscious of not calling recipes or menu plans “easy,” because they never really are. Even the simplest recipe is not technically easy; making anything from scratch requires certain skills and has a time cost. Dishes happen.

My hope as a culinary educator is to give people access to the skills and resources necessary to empower them to live full, healthy, vital lives. It’s tough, and modern lifestyle is often not very supportive of our attempts to make positive healthful changes in our lives. For too many families, however, access to fresh foods is an additional obstacle in their path towards a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Moreover, as each generation becomes more estranged from its food sources, skills like gardening and cooking fresh food die out. With each step along the way, people’s cultural experience of consuming and enjoying real food is diminished.

As a result, most people in our society today are living in a toxic food environment. The term “food desert” was coined in the United Kingdom in 1999 and essentially refers to an area where fresh, nutritious food is difficult to obtain. Often, food deserts are assumed to be a primarily urban phenomenon, but food access is a challenge even in the heart of America’s breadbasket. Many rural towns in Illinois are 20 or more miles from a grocery store that sells good quality, fresh produce.

Many governmental and community efforts have been made to increase food access in underserved neighborhoods, such as the Obama Administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative. And yet, multiple studies have shown that increasing fresh food access does not necessarily lead to increased purchasing and consumption of healthier foods. Many people today, both rich and poor, simply don’t know what to do with fresh food: how to store it, wash it, prep it, cook it and eat it. Not only are we as a society forgetting how to feed ourselves, but also we are becoming so detached from the source of our food that we don’t even realize there’s a problem.

And yet the fact remains that, whether we live in a “food desert” or next door to a Whole Foods and walking distance from a farmers market, we have unparalleled and unprecedented exposure and access to highly processed, high calorie, high fat, high sugar, heavily marketed, cheap foods.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 50 percent of Americans eat “fast food” at least once a week, and 30 percent eat fast food every day. And the problem isn’t confined to the drive-through: much of the food served in large, sit-down chain restaurants, and even smaller independent restaurants, is just highly processed, heat-and-serve food out of a box, served on a nicer plate. The same is true for school cafeterias, which, sadly, often provide the only two meals a child receives in a day.

PHOTO FACEBOOK.COM/GENHKIDS

 


Even when families manage to sit down together at the dinner table, their “home-cooked” meal is often highly processed, low nutrition heat-and-serve food purchased from the supermarket. Indeed, the majority of food sold in supermarkets is not fresh. Instead, we’re presented with countless highly processed, artificial options that are cleverly and deceptively marketed to make us believe that they’re fresh and “healthy.” Some of these dishonest practices have even resulted in lawsuits.

The pervasiveness of our toxic food environment has profound consequences for our health and security as a nation. Breaking this cycle will require more than improving access to fresh, nutritionally dense foods. Individuals and families must be given the tools and knowledge to affect the change that is needed to reverse the trend.

I grew up here in Springfield and my great-grandparents had a truck farm. They grew vegetables to sell at the farmers market and to restaurants. My Nana was an amazing cook, and she passed it on to my grandmother, and my mother passed it on down to me. Skills such as these are a vital part of our humanity and are becoming far too rare.

Through genHkids programming we give people access to the tools and knowledge necessary to empower themselves to live a life full of energy and vitality. St. John’s Hospital has donated funds to purchase a mobile food trailer that will be loaded with overflow produce from our school and community gardens. That trailer will be taken into underserved communities and act not only as a location where fresh produce can be purchased at a modest price, but as a venue for pop-up cooking classes and demonstrations, fitnesss education and health screenings.

genHkids’ mobile produce trailer will be showcased at the group’s fourth annual fundraiser, Savor, to be held June 18 at the Inn at 835.

For more information contact http://genhkids.org/programs-events/events/savor/  or call 217-691-0592.

Ashley Meyer is the executive chef for genHkids and a passionate believer in the genHkids motto, “Eat Real, Move More.” Meyer began working for the Springfield-based nonprofit in January 2016, and is looking forward to a summer filled with gardens, happy kids and lots of veggies.

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