Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

Food for Thought

Annell Aleman listens as nutrition educator Annie Van talks to a class at St. Paul’s Gordon Parks High School.

It’s the kind of practical advice we all need: How to make better choices in what we eat. How to stretch our grocery dollars and buy more food that’s better for us. How to cook tasty, nutritious meals at home more often, and rely on sugary snacks and fast-food less often. It’s the kind of advice you can get from Minnesota’s community nutrition educators.

“Most people feel it’s challenging to find healthy food on a budget,” says Betty Wistrom, a nutrition educator in Lake County for 25 years. “That’s where working with them on shopping skills, menu planning, and reading labels helps them realize they can eat healthier.”

The nutrition educators are part of the University of Minnesota Extension Service, and members of U of M Technical Local 3937. In every county of Minnesota, they go into classrooms, retirement homes, preschools, and community centers. They give cooking demonstrations, share recipes, preach food safety, and explain how to create balanced, affordable meals and diets.

Colorful lessons

With the Extension’s curriculum, even schoolchildren learn how to decipher the “Nutrition Facts” tables on food packaging. And everybody learns about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new “Color My Plate” recommendations, which replace the “food pyramid.” To expand their clients’ tastes, nutrition educators love whipping up easy-to-make skillet meals or great-tasting smoothies – packed not only with fruit, but also with surprise ingredients such as kale or fresh spinach.

Most of the time, educators emphasize the same things – more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, more water or real juices instead of soft drinks, cooking from scratch instead of using box mixes. But they learn quickly to customize topics to their audience, says Jane Rezac, an educator in Dakota County for 15 years.

For children or young families, it might mean promoting fruits and vegetables through a “rainbow of colors” approach. “Preschoolers like color, understand color, and like to work with color,” she says. “And parents want to find techniques that help their children to be healthy.”

For seniors, nutritional information might be less important than day-to-day tips on how to cook for only one person. For working moms, educators might emphasize how to save time by planning meals in advance and working creatively with leftovers. For teens, it’s opening their eyes to the truth about sugary soft drinks and junk food.

Part of the community

Betty Wistrom is an example of how nutrition educators tackle food issues on an individual and community basis. In rural Lake County, she’ll meet one-on-one with families. But she also shares nutrition, shopping, and recipe advice during weekly food shelf hours in Two Harbors.

Phil Arnold, who helps run the food shelf, says he often has no control over what food is available. “Last week, we got cases of garbanzo beans. And people don’t know what to do with them. So that’s where Betty comes in.

“She finds recipes. She made hummus, and people went nuts. Thanks to her efforts, people know how to step out of their comfort zones.”

This summer, Wistrom will teach at the new community garden. “She’ll take it from ‘this is how you grow this stuff, this is what you do with it,’ and then get into how to store it, how to preserve it, how to use it in meals,” Arnold says.

“It’s an awesome, fun job,” says Sonia Meline, a nutrition educator for eight years in Norman County. “I’ve got a whole county’s worth of kids that are looking at the Nutrition Facts. We look at the sodium levels, we look at the calcium levels, we look at the added sugar versus the natural sugars. And the kids really get into it.”

The flip side, she says, is that students often recognize her in the grocery store. “So I don’t do anything but buy ‘good food.’ If my husband wants any of his goodies, he has to buy his own, in his own cart – away from me.”

Beyond packaging

Educators know they are swimming upstream against a food industry that is a marketing machine for packaged, processed foods that are filled with sugar, salt, and additives.

So nutrition educators give practical alternatives. “I can show you how to make that breakfast sandwich with a whole-wheat muffin and a real egg,” says Annie Van, a nutrition educator in Ramsey County for 32 years. “And you’ll know what’s in it!

“I’m in a lot of schools, and it scares me, what I see these kids eat,” Van says. “So I always let them know, it’s a matter of choices. You can keep on, and this stuff will kill you.”

Educators urge participants to compare costs and ingredients. They compare how much they pay per serving with packaged lettuce vs. a head of lettuce, for example, or the nutritional value of natural peanut butter vs. hydrogenated varieties.

“Ultimately, this is about people changing their behavior,” says Amy Viniard-Weideman, assistant dean of the University of Minnesota Extension.

Nutrition educators inspire that change. More than 60 percent of participants change their diets, Viniard-Weideman says. More cook more often at home. More do comparison shopping.

“That old saying, you are what you eat? It’s that simple,” Van says. “It starts with what you put in your body. It’s that simple.”

Nutrition educator Jane Rezac prepares a “rainbow smoothie” for a Head Start class in Dakota County.

Adapted from a story in the May/June 2013 Stepping Up.

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