by Dhruv Kohli
Our relationship with food is a particularly interesting but often confounding one. Food plays such a central role in our health, culture, and society, yet we distance ourselves from its production and preparation. The food we eat often comes from farms and factories halfway across the world, passing through the hands of countless individuals we will never meet before it reaches our plates. Our blissful ignorance of the processes and people behind our food has become the norm in our fast-paced and convenience-driven world, but it comes at a price. An understanding of where and how our food is made is integral in developing an appreciation for its value, both economically and nutritionally, and this appreciation is often lost in our society today.
As such, one of the major projects that I have worked on so far in my role as an outreach coordinator at the Allegheny County Health Department is the creation of a Healthy Eating and Active Living (HEAL) Action Plan devoted to educating families on food resource management. By providing these families with resources ranging from low-cost and nutritious recipes to a guide for utilizing SNAP benefits at farmers markets, we are looking to equip them with the tools necessary to make healthy and informed decisions when shopping for groceries and cooking.
As we enter into the heart of the fall season, an especially important topic that we have highlighted is the seasonality of fruits and vegetables and how that affects their freshness and cost. Though fresh produce is a fantastic and delicious addition to any meal, it can often be difficult to incorporate for a number of reasons. Out of season fruits and vegetables that are not grown locally will often be more expensive and are generally not at peak freshness. A great way to avoid these limitations is to visit your local farmer's market or one of the many food distribution programs run by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Programs like Produce to People, a large-scale monthly fresh produce distribution with 17 locations through their service area, and Green Grocer, a mobile farmers market that travels into food deserts, are examples of these excellent resources. Interacting on a more personal level with food and those who produce it cultivates a deeper investment in the impact that it can have on our overall wellbeing. For those who are unable to access farmers markets, we recommend opting for canned or frozen choices as these typically have equivalent nutritional value and are much more affordable. However, it is still important to be wary of added sugars and sodium in these foods.
With these simple suggestions, families can transform how they purchase and prepare their food by exploring a wider variety of ingredients and maximizing nutritional potential, all while on a budget. The feedback that we have received from our family support centers has been very positive as parents have already begun to put into action these basic recommendations through general lifestyle changes. Through distribution of the resources in our HEAL Plan and the implementation of education programs like Cooking Matters and Shopping Matters at family support centers across the county, we hope to spread knowledge and awareness about the significance food should hold in our lives, and in doing so, improve the health of our communities.