What is “healthy” eating anyway?

by Kelsey Miller

Do you eat paleo? Primal? Local? Organic? Gluten-free? Refined sugar-free? Vegetarian? Pescatarian? Vegan? South Beach Diet? Atkins? Hunter-gatherer? Fast food junkie?

zuchinniOr are you overwhelmed by what appears to be an ever-evolving set of messages about what is healthy, what our bodies were created to eat, and how to make good food choices? Americans are inundated with messaging that tells us we’re never getting it quite right with food, even as we are sold the “silver bullet” to good health and nutrition. As a nation, our diet-related health outcomes are worse than ever. Healthy eating enthusiasts have, at turns, said fat was making us fat, and then reversed that decision. It’s healthier to avoid meat, or it’s healthier to eat lots of meat. Carbs are the enemy; whole grains are essential to good health. Sugar is the devil; sugar is not really so bad in moderation. All of these developments and disagreements have emerged in just the past few decades or so. Even for the conscious consumer with enough income for flexibility in choice, the sheer number of choices and the ever-increasing volume of conflicting information is maddening.

How has our culture so deeply complicated one of the simplest and most basic human activities – eating? Writers much more skilled than I have contemplated these big questions at great length – check out Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Raj Patel, and Michael Bittman if you want to read more. But I’m more interested in this issue at the practical level – we are inundated by information (and misinformation) about healthy eating; how then shall we live? How can Waco become a better place for all people to eat and thrive, even when we don’t have all the right definitions or answers?

tomatoes-1Let me be the first to admit, I am overwhelmed. I love fresh fruits and veggies, try to eat only meat, fish, and dairy raised ethically, and have had the privilege of growing my own food (and food for my community) as a former produce intern at World Hunger Relief, Inc. And yet…

And yet I still frequently find myself at a loss for what to eat in a pinch, how to make good choices with limited time and energy, and how to consistently make healthy food culture a part of my life. I often fail to eat healthy. I often struggle with this question of, do I have to eat healthy at all times in order to recommend it in the community at large? My professional mission – which interweaves with my personal mission in many ways – is to advocate for and strengthen programs and policies which increase children’s access to healthy foods. What if as advocates we were more open about the fact that none of us – or at least very few – get it all right when it comes to healthy eating?

Occasionally, I’ll try an experiment where I ask people from different backgrounds how they define healthy eating or good nutrition. In my limited, unscientific experience, very few people answer with any real confidence, regardless of their education or income level.

If you’re a student, how many times in the last month have you gone to a class or meeting and been offered free candy, cookies, or donuts?

If you’ve visited a food pantry recently, how much of your box was full of canned and packaged goods, with long ingredient lists, and few whole, fresh items?

If you’re working and attend many meetings, how many lunches have you been to recently where barbecue, meat-heavy dishes, or fast food was offered?

I do not seek to demonize any of these choices and realities (I have a particular weakness for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups…), but rather to suggest, aren’t we all kidding ourselves if we think only folks with low incomes struggle to make healthy food choices on a regular basis? Whether it’s the tyrant of Too Busy or the tyrant of Too Much Information, many of us feel helpless in our knowledge of what is truly healthy food, and in our ability to acquire, prepare, and eat such foods.

As I write this blog post at my desk, I’ve finished my lunch of roasted sweet potatoes, black beans, and watermelon, all packed in a reusable, BPA-free container. But here’s the wrench: I washed it all down with a carbonated soda in a – gasp! – Styrofoam cup. Does this make me a bad person? Does the fact that I have an on-again, off-again relationship with soda even when I know it is bad for me make my advice or recommendations moot?

squashIf all of us “food people,” as I sometimes hear myself referred to around town, opened up about our own struggles to make healthy choices, I wonder if it might change the conversation. Would that vulnerability welcome more folks into the conversation about how to ensure all have access to healthy food? I am convinced that it is not people with low-incomes alone who need “education” on nutrition and healthy eating, as I so often hear well-intentioned people say. It is all of us. Despite cleverly curated Pinterest boards, how many of us really know how to cook simple and healthy meals anymore, or feel like we can make a healthy choice under pressure at most restaurants? What if we could embark on a journey of healthy eating all together, as a community, instead of drawing arbitrary lines in the sand about who needs education and support? Because if I’m being honest, that neon fast food sign looks pretty appetizing during my short lunchtime…and I, too, need encouragement and solidarity from my community to make better choices.

kelseyKelsey Miller  blogs for Act Locally Waco about Food Security and related issues. She is a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco Regional Office. Kelsey is also a team member for the CHAMPS grant. The CHAMPS project aims to equip city leaders, anti-hunger groups, and the broader community to more effectively combat child hunger with the help of summer and afterschool meal programs.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

Meals for Kids and Teens Hitting Our Streets This Summer!

By Kelsey Scherer, Child Hunger Outreach Specialist

Since we know that Waco children and families struggle with hunger throughout the school year, we also know that hunger – like any other complex issue inextricably linked to poverty – doesn’t take a summer vacation. That’s why programs like the Summer Food Service Program, which we know locally as free Summer Meals for Kids, are critically important in our community. Waco ISD’s Child Nutrition Services has served free Summer Meals for over twenty years in partnership with school campuses, local churches, and nonprofit organizations, but this year, they’re doing things a little bit differently.

For the first time ever, Waco ISD’s Child Nutrition Services will be launching a new mobile meal program called “Meals on the Bus!” The program will address the longstanding barrier of inadequate access to transportation that has, for many years, been cited as a top reason that children are unable to visit summer meals sites and receive a nutritious meal. By bringing the meals directly to groups of kids at select locations, parents and advocates won’t have to worry about children crossing busy streets or traveling far from home in order to have access to a free lunch.

Two Waco ISD buses have been retrofitted with the collaboration of Waco ISD and STS, and will be fully equipped to serve hot meals to up to 40 children at a time. Children will line up and receive their meals inside the bus, where they will be able to sit in the bus seats and enjoy their meal safely and in the comfort of an air-conditioned space. Targeted stops will include apartment complexes and areas with high densities of children who could benefit from the meal. The site list will be announced soon, but several great partners, including the Waco Public Library System, are on board. Like any traditional Summer Meals site, this program provides limitless potential for partnership with churches, community organizations, state agencies, and others, who have the desire and flexibility to provide summer programming and enrichment to children on-site. Waco ISD will also operate many traditional, non-mobile sites throughout the summer, as always.

9-food-on-the-move-logoThis summer, you will also see Waco’s newest child nutrition program sponsor, CitySquare, launching their mobile Food on the Move program in Waco and beyond! The fact that this summer, Waco will be graced with the presence of not one, but two, food sponsors trying out new meal service models speaks to the willingness of groups to collaborate and coordinate services on behalf of Waco children and families. It also reflects the strength of growing efforts to innovate and come up with creative, strategic solutions to challenges within this space. CitySquare has done an excellent job of coordinating dinner meal service to over 900 children daily at participating afterschool programs in Waco since January 2014.

Both of these programs have been in the planning stages for several years, but additional energy, fresh resolve, and technical assistance were brought to the table when the CHAMPS grant, sponsored by National League of Cities (NLC) and Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and funded by the Walmart Foundation, was awarded to the City of Waco’s Parks and Recreation Department. The specific goal of this grant is to increase the number of children who participate in the federally-funded Summer and Afterschool Meals programs, and we have already seen those numbers increase through afterschool meals as a result of the work of this team (of which I am, of course, a totally unbiased member). I am thrilled that our city is being proactive in launching a new model for meal service that has potential to positively impact the wellbeing of children, teens, and families. I am encouraged that we have already seen similar programs be enormously effective in other Texas communities, and I look forward to helping these leaders try out this model in our own community, tailoring it to the specific needs and desires of our neighbors. I can’t wait to see all that will come of these unique partnerships, and see new partnerships and collaborations formed around these great programs.

Keep your eyes peeled for Waco ISD’s “Meals on the Bus!” and CitySquare’s “Food on the Move” serving free Summer Meals to kids and teens ages 18 and under in early June, and an advertising campaign beginning soon. If you want to get involved by supporting a Waco ISD or CitySquare site through volunteers and activities for kids, or helping spread the word, please contact Kelsey Scherer at kelsey_scherer@baylor.edu or 254-300-7801.

kelseyKelsey Scherer blogs for Act Locally Waco about Food Security and related issues. She is a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco Regional Office. Kelsey is also a team member for the CHAMPS grant.  The CHAMPS project aims to equip city leaders, anti-hunger groups, and the broader community to more effectively combat child hunger with the help of summer and afterschool meal programs.

Pressing Toward Collaboration

By Kelsey Scherer

A couple months ago, I was driving through Austin on the way to a conference for work. I glanced at an overpass to see these words scrawled across the concrete wall:

“Collaboration is currency”

The phrase stunned me with its elegant simplicity.

Encouraging community collaboration, dialogue, and connection is a huge part of what I do as a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco office. Still, I regularly struggle to clearly outline the role and value of collaboration in the work I do. I came into this position with well-intentioned ideas about the importance of collaboration, and yet have struggled to pursue earnest, engaged collaboration as much as I had hoped.

As I strain toward being a part of the renewal of this beautiful city with all of its untapped potential, perhaps it’s easier to begin with an honest reminder of what is not currency.

My privilege is not currency. My whiteness is not currency. My femininity is not currency. These are things which I admit, however uncomfortably, that I have used to my advantage for social or professional gain at various points in my journey. But collaboration – collaboration is a different story, and an entirely different currency, because it doesn’t belong to me. I can’t own it, steal it, or borrow it. Collaboration is currency which may be freely used, exchanged, and debated by all – which the reduced and exclusive currencies of culturally normative gender, race, wealth, or health status cannot. Regardless of my background and experience, genuine collaboration insists that my voice is not the one that matters, and that collectively we can achieve, learn, grow, and heal more together than we can apart.

While collaboration may seem like a sexy term – and we may be tempted to extol its virtues and slip it into conversation to further our agendas – collaboration lived out is anything but sexy. It’s messy, confusing, and hard to define. As soon as we find ourselves patting each other on the back for “collaboration well done,” we find another voice that has been excluded, another empty chair that should have been filled and pulled up to the table. Collaboration forces me to come to terms with what I lack. It reminds me that I do not know my neighbor, and if I don’t know my neighbor, I cannot possibly love my neighbor well.

grand canyonUsing collaboration as currency starts to chip away at the uneven playing field to which we arrive each day – a field which benefits me unfairly, to the detriment of others. Collaboration, however amorphous and hard to define, holds great promise for restoring dignity and humanity to people whose unique voices have been silenced for too long. Collaboration rightly understood is the only way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves. Trapped by isms, by poverty, by hunger, by finger-pointing and poor-blaming, collaboration is like a first awe-inspiring glance into the Grand Canyon. We may be impressed by its beauty and potential, but none of us are so foolish as to think it can be conquered or wrested away for our own purposes.

kelseyKelsey Scherer joins the Act Locally Waco team to blog about Food Security and related issues. She is a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at Texas Hunger Initiative’s Waco Regional Office. Kelsey is also a team member for the CHAMPS grant.  The CHAMPS project aims to equip city leaders, anti-hunger groups, and the broader community to more effectively combat child hunger with the help of summer and afterschool meal programs.



What is hunger? How do we understand it?

By Kelsey Scherer

Hunger feels like a strange topic this time of year, doesn’t it? At a time of year when for many of us food is available in abundant – if not excessive – quantities, we can easily lose sight of the fact that this is not the case for all families in our community. Let’s take a moment to remember that today.

What do we even mean when we use the word “hunger?” Bread for the World, a leading international anti-hunger organization, astutely defines it this way: “hunger is a physical manifestation of poverty.” They are not talking about the occasional stomach grumble or the physiological symptom of skipping lunch because we’re too busy. They are talking about the kind of hunger that is the result of on-going need. For this kind of hunger, I prefer the more descriptive term “food insecurity.” Chronic food insecurity – which is defined as uncertain or unstable access to enough healthy food for three meals per day, seven days per week – is a nuanced and complicated issue, and it affects 14.5% of American households. That’s nearly 49 million Americans.

But what does food insecurity look like? How can we identify the people who are experiencing it? Food insecurity takes many forms, and affects different individuals and families in different and far-reaching ways. A participant in a recent focus group at Caritas, a food pantry providing critical assistance to Waco-area families, explained, “Hunger doesn’t really have a face. You can’t tell if someone is hungry by just looking at them.”

I6- Caritas pic couldn’t agree more. There is not a sound or appropriate way to physically assess whether a child or adult is experiencing food insecurity, and there is danger in thinking we can make an assessment of such a complicated issue with one sweeping glance. If we assume that hunger is only experienced by the homeless man we sometimes see downtown, we will fail to understand that it can also impact the single parent in the suburbs who struggles to pay her mortgage and to put a healthy dinner on the table every night, or the two parents who work a combined four jobs but just can’t make ends meet. Even within the small city of Waco, hunger can look different from block to block. To more fully understand how food insecurity is impacting our neighbors we must move beyond assumptions and stereotypes.

We don’t necessarily know who is hungry, why they are facing food insecurity, or even the best ways to help. With that in mind, it is critically important that we approach our neighbors with a posture of humility and grace when we seek to problem-solve. When poverty-fighters approach people facing food insecurity as teachers from whom we have much to learn and who are experts on their own problems – rather than as students who need teaching or reprimanding –  we make progress. In so doing, we significantly increase the chances of ending poverty in life-giving, dignifying, collaborative, effective ways.

What so many of us who do community work (myself included) often miss as we seek to attack the complex problems associated with poverty are the real perspectives, dreams, and goals of the real people who experience poverty. Even with the best intentions, if our solutions to poverty aren’t informed, driven, led, and evaluated by the people experiencing it, those “solutions” are doomed to fail. The same is true of programs designed to end hunger and to empower families to have secure access to healthy food.

So, as each of us enjoy this holiday season, may we be inspired to volunteer at local food pantries, to participate in food drives, and to give back to our community in other meaningful ways. But, let’s also seek to get to know our neighbors on their own terms. May we approach our neighbors who are experiencing poverty and food insecurity in a spirit of warm curiosity and teachability, believing that they hold the key wisdom and insight that is needed to solve these problems.

This week’s Act Locally Waco blog post is by Kelsey Scherer, a Child Hunger Outreach Specialist at the Texas Hunger Initiative. Are you interested in writing a post for the Act Locally Waco blog? If so, please email Ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org.