Things I learned in three years of our Nutrition Initiative: My Top Ten

[Cross-posted from Beyond Bread]

Somehow three years have gone by (actually flown by) since I started working at Bread for the City. As the go-to person for all things nutrition-related, I’ve been asked to reflect on how far we’ve come in that time and where we’re going next. I figured a Top 10 list might be a fun way to go about it (it could have been a Top 100 list, but…) so here we go, in no particular order:

10. My work day will never be boring. Our clients face many different kinds of problems, and we must always think creatively to support them in addressing them. This means we rely on our co-workers who have expertise in a variety of areas, and it also means that we need to be creative.

9. Building it does not necessarily ensure that they will come–even if they sign up to come. We’ve developed a lot of fun and free opportunities to learn cool things here in nutrition classes, cooking classes, and more. But our clients’ schedules are at the mercy of all kinds of challenging factors: they might not have working phones to receive calls; they might be dependent on unreliable public transportation; they’re often thrust into crises of all kinds; and sometimes are dealing with physical and mental health issues that make it challenging to keep commitments. How does this affect the programming we offer? Well, we try hard and then hope for the best. We make reminder calls, put signs up around the building, and then we cold-call all past participants of related workshops in hope that it might be a good fit for them this time around, as well. And then we divide by 2. If 40 people say they’re coming, we have learned to expect that this means we’ll have 20 people max, which might be the number we were hoping for anyhow.

8. Simply sharing stories can be transformative. This year, we explored struggles relating to food and health in a support-group setting. People share things in a group that they might not in a one-on-one consultation, and peers can learn a lot from listening to each other. We plan to start up the second iteration of our weight loss support group in the spring.

7. It is worth getting your hands dirty. At a client trip to a nearby urban farm this past summer, a regular cooking workshop participant turned to me with a fistful of mint and asked, “Is this mint?” Me: “Yes.” Client, smelling the mint: “I never tasted mint before the fish stew we made at the cooking workshop last month. I loved that stew and have been intending to make it. And now I get to pick the mint myself. I’m going to make it tonight! Just beautiful.” Sometimes it takes getting one’s hands enmeshed with the food to demystify it and motivate to try it at home. We hope to do lots more of this at our own rooftop gardens this summer.

6. Having the education doesn’t mean we have the answers. After getting a complete picture of a medical patient’s diet and exercise habits, I ask: “What do you think about how you’re eating?” and “What have been obstacles in the past that have stopped you from getting where you want to be health-wise?” and also, “What do you need to help you take better care of yourself?”

5. It’s hard to know what will stick and how things travel. For example, a few months ago I was talking with workshop participants about the disproportionate amount of starchy foods at a traditional Thanksgiving meal. When I asked the group if squash counts as a starch, one diabetic client, Ms. Johnson, said, “Is it winter squash or summer squash? You taught us a while ago that winter squash like butternut is full of starch and this matters for diabetes, but summer squash like zucchini is more watery and cleansing.” I knew that she was engaged during the workshops, but this was impressive recollection. Also, sometimes it seems that a client might not be ready to make changes just yet; but seeds can sprout later on, or get transferred to friends and family. You just never know.

4. Food can mask almost anything if someone wants it to. Lots of patients say they overeat because they “love” food, but they also describe eating as a numbing technique, a way to disengage from something deeper going on. When we love something, don’t we want to fully engage in it? When people overeat in this way, it’s often that first bite that they love, but then they love the mask that the eating creates. I’ve had the honor of witnessing some patients do the complex work of addressing what’s happening in that deeper place, and have seen them freed to truly love food, to eat it slowly and savor each bite.

3. Food is more complicated than we might imagine. In fact, there are more reasons than I ever could have imagined as to why people make the decisions they make around food. It never occurred to me that one of my patients would tell me that she can’t cook at home because she is too wide to turn around in her narrow galley kitchen. Or the pervasiveness of the story of those of us who are out of work, no longer on a schedule, and too depressed about it to try to come up with a plan. This is precisely why I don’t prescribe to one specific diet. Every body is different. Not only are we unique on a biochemical level, but our life circumstances also dictate unique approaches that can work for us.

2. Effective leaders initiate progress but are still grounded in their community. Being a leader means BFC needs to stick to its values and lead by example while also staying in close contact with the clients we serve. We have a serious responsibility to our clients and to the community overall, which means, among other things, being firm about not distributing high-sugar and high-sodium items that promote diabetes and heart disease. And it means having a continuous dialog with our clients about the food we provide.

1. There is much more to be done. When I started here three years ago, it was on a three-month contract. Still, I thought a lot could be accomplished in that time. Though I might have accomplished some of it, it was certainly a drop in the bucket. I think of that first year as the year of the low-hanging fruit. I started work in both the medical clinic and the food pantry; among other things, I started seeing patients individually, and the food program stopped purchasing unhealthy snacks, high-sodium soups and other canned goods, and we implemented a no trans-fats policy. With Glean for the City in full swing, as well as other projects in the works, I see years two and three as a time of programmatic innovation. I hope that at the end of this year, my fourth, I can look back on the meshing of some of our new activities into our overall holistic approach. I hope that our messages about food and health in the medical clinic and in the food program will be even more unified and that our complement of programs will offer all BFC clients an opportunity to access and explore healthy, tasty foods in a way that is fun, inspiring, and nourishing.

Thank you for supporting us along this great journey.

Sharon Gruber is Nutrition Consultant at Bread for the City.

Written by Sharon Gruber

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