Program Makes Healthy Eating Easier for Food Bank Visitors

by:

in: People

Fresh produce is handed out at a community pantry. Credit: Peter Clarke

When Seattle chef Maxime Bilet says he was presented with the “most amazing challenge,” you want to know more. After all, what could be more difficult than creating barbecue with a smoker, a sous-vide bath, a centrifuge or liquid nitrogen?

Think simple, really simple.

“You pretty much have nothing other than what’s in the food bank. You have to make a delicious dish from these ingredients in under 20 minutes. And you have nothing but the basic tools,” says Bilet, the 30-year-old co-creator of “Modernist Cuisine” and its sister cookbook “Modernist Cuisine at Home,” a groundbreaking exploration of cooking, art and science.

Food bank?  Basic tools?  Under 20 minutes?  Dorothy, we are clearly not in Nathan Myhrvold’s kitchen anymore.  (Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive and master French chef, was the force behind “Modernist Cuisine.”)

Peter Clarke and Susan Evans. Credit: Duane Poole

University of Southern California professors Peter Clarke and Susan Evans enlisted Bilet in their ambitious project to transform the diet of Americans dependent on the free food distributed by food banks. They began in 1991 with a program to pair up the nation’s 200-plus food banks — whose inventory consisted largely of cereals, canned goods and convenience foods — with produce distributors who had surplus fruits and vegetables.

Clarke and Evans quickly discovered that getting fresh beans or squash into the food bank community pantries wasn’t enough. They needed to help people figure out what to do with the vegetables or risk having the produce dumped in the garbage.

Food bank visitors don’t have easy path to healthy eating

Time and resources are big barriers to healthy eating. Many of the people dependent on pantries are seniors or the working poor, who are juggling a couple of part-time jobs while raising children. They often suffer from diabetes or other chronic diseases. A growing number are Latino and Asian immigrants who aren’t familiar with the vegetables eaten in the United States. And their kitchens aren’t likely to be stocked with sharp knives, food processors or expensive spices.

They need food that is simple to make, fast and filling, which is why their default meals often come in a can, a microwaveable carton or a fast-food bag.

So Clarke and Evans created QUICK! Help for Meals, a computer program that provides pantry clients with recipes that incorporate the produce of the day and are available in English or Spanish.  They found that by customizing the recipes to the individual’s needs — family size, health issues, flavor preferences — they could double the amount of vegetables people took home.

Dio Velasco (left), a field researcher for QUICK! Help for Meals, gathers reactions to recipes from a pantry client at Our Savior Center in El Monte, Calif. Credit: Peter Clarke

Clarke and Evans scoured cookbooks and the Internet to build a recipe list based around the vegetables most commonly found in food banks:  zucchini, broccoli, green beans, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, root vegetables and cabbage.  They also sought the help of top food professionals.

Brian Wansink, Cornell University food psychologist and author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think,” taught them about the hidden things that influence people’s food choices. His research shows that restaurants can increase sales by 20% with menu descriptions that evoke positive feelings, such as “Grandma’s oatmeal cookies.” With his assistance, Clarke and Evans revised their recipes and are currently testing the dressed-up versions at several Southern California pantries.

Lachlan Sands, the executive chef at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Los Angeles, and his students reviewed several hundred recipes for ease of preparation, flavor and nutritional value. “The number one thing is that the food is properly cooked,” Sands says. “People don’t like Brussels sprouts because they have such a strong flavor. But if you cook them right, they are nutty and sweet.”

Chef Maxime Bilet. Credit: Ryan Matthew Smith

Bilet was asked to use his culinary wizardry to develop recipes with kid appeal, an important priority for pantry clients. His biggest challenge was “making a head of cabbage awesome to a kid who’s accustomed to eating Big Macs.” The solution?  Cut the cabbage into thick wedges, baste them with a little oil and salt to release the water and then roast them with a few sprinkles of feta cheese or brown sugar and honey.  “When in doubt, roast,” he says. “Kids prefer the softer textures with vegetables and they love that roasted flavor.”

Bilet also created a whole-grain stew featuring sautéed zucchini, brown rice and creamed corn, all popular pantry items.  “It had all the flavor notes,” says Bilet. “It had the vegetableness, the nuttiness and substance of rice and the creaminess and sweetness of creamed corn. The kids loved it.”

Bilet, who recently left Myhrvold’s cooking lab to pursue new adventures, believes food empowerment can become a powerful tool for improving public health in America. And he credits Clarke and Evans with helping lead the charge. They are now working with researchers to transfer QUICK! Help for Meals to a smartphone app to make it easier for pantries to administer.  “It’s just so brilliant,” Bilet says.

Photo: Fresh produce is handed out at a community pantry. Credit: Peter Clarke


Zester Daily contributor Evelyn Iritani, a former economics writer for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for a series she co-authored on Wal-Mart's impact on the global economy. An interest in Japan, her family's ancestral homeland, was the inspiration for her book, "An Ocean Between Us: The Changing Relationship of Japan and the United States Told in Four Stories From the Life of an American Town." In her spare time, she loves making wickedly rich desserts and herding cows in Montana.

recommend

Email

PRINT

Comments

Linda Littrell
on: 11/25/12
Great idea, 'hope to have access to this information soon. Thanks!
E Iritani
on: 11/25/12
The next phase of the pilot program launches soon...will be sure to report back! Evelyn
BelindieG
on: 11/27/12
"Many of the people dependent on pantries are seniors or the working poor, who are juggling a couple of part-time jobs while raising children. They often suffer from diabetes or other chronic diseases. A growing number are Latino and Asian immigrants who aren’t familiar with the vegetables eaten in the United States. And their kitchens aren’t likely to be stocked with sharp knives, food processors or expensive spices." Gimme a break-most immigrants understand knives and many people live without food processors. "Expenisve spices"--like what? Saffron? Where do these po' folks get feta cheese, anyway? This reads like a parody from The Onion.
E Iritani
on: 11/27/12
The QUICK! Help for Meals program is designed to remove obstacles that have kept pantry clients from eating and enjoying fresh vegetables. Those include an unfamiliarity with some of the vegetables or not having the right utensils. I wish poverty and obesity in America was a parody, but sadly it is not. Evelyn
Peter Clarke and Susan Evans
on: 11/28/12
Belindieg raises valid issues. We have been attentive to these when developing Quick! Help for Meals. We carefully design recipes and compose food-use tips so that they use ingredients that are available to low income people, and require skills of literacy and numeracy that are widely shared. We also pre-test recipes with low-income cooks by gaining their reactions at pantries and having some pantry clients prepare servings at home. Interviews and focus groups with clients also refine presentations of materials, through layout of information, choice of type, graphic supports, and more. Quick! Help’s computer-based customization of food-use information allows us to give each pantry client the recipes and tips that are pertinent to her or his needs and situation. For example, households that enjoy soups can get soup recipes, while others do not. Someone who cooks with a microwave gets recipes that use that utensil. Someone who enjoys Hispanic-flavored preparations gets those recipes. Our tailoring profile currently has 23 questions that guide the creation of individualized pamphlets linked to foods that are actually in distribution at each pantry. Each client even designs his or her own cover for the recipe booklet.
Mette Kirsch
on: 12/22/12
This sounds so very promising! I'd love to get my hands on some of those recipes and hear more about the project. It would be a joy to pass on the knowledge to our local food banks in Central Minnesota and disseminate it to volunteer cooks at the soup kitchens.
Peter Clarke and Susan Evans
on: 12/28/12
Stay tuned, Mette. Until now, Quick! Help has used tablet computers at pantries, where volunteers ask clients questions that the system uses to customize food information for each household. Now, we are creating a mobile phone access to Quick! Help, which will be much more practical. At the same time, we are also expanding and improving our portfolio of hundreds of recipes, food-use tips, and other guidance about household meal consumption.

Add a comment