In Philadelphia, a bounty of opportunities to eat healthy - and local

This box of farm-share vegetables cost only $10.
This box of farm-share vegetables cost only $10. (STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: August 30, 2012

WHEN first lady Michelle Obama launched her Let's Move! initiative in February 2010, it brought attention to school lunches, food deserts in urban neighborhoods and the rise in obesity, particularly among children and the poor.

Among the results so far has been a campaign to make locally grown and healthy foods available in all communities, including city neighborhoods with few fresh-food resources. Change often comes slowly and, to paraphrase the adage, you may be able to lead the horse to an organic carrot, but you can't necessarily make it eat it.

Mary Seton Corboy, founder of Greensgrow, Philadelphia's most successful urban farm, has been vocal about her frustration that her Kensington neighbors have been reluctant to give up their corner-store calories and opt in to Greensgrow's fresh and local fare.

Many in the field of hunger and nutrition might silently agree that there is resistance from some low-income individuals, but they also are quick to point out that the problems of getting people to eat healthier reaches across all income levels - otherwise, the United Stcsaates wouldn't be in the midst of an obesity epidemic.

It is true, however, that it's more challenging to eat healthier when your food dollars are limited and convenient outlets for healthy fare are few. To that end, Corboy and others have adapted farm-share programs to make them more affordable and easy to use. Within these programs, there are success stories.

Greensgrow's Local Initiative for Food Education, or LIFE, program offers a farm share for $13 and includes $4 back in coupons to spend at local farm stands where SNAP (federal nutrition-assistance benefits) are used. Coordinator Samantha Kelly provides nutrition tips and facts about local foods, and a staff chef demonstrates recipes every week in the outdoor kitchen. This year, there's a free children's activity so that the adults can concentrate on the class.

Jennifer Quintua of Hunting Park said her family never ate vegetables until she joined the LIFE program this year. Now they are a regular part of the menu.

"My favorite recipe," said Quintua, "is the vegetable fried rice. It's really versatile, and I've learned to throw whatever vegetables I have on hand in."

Quintua also enjoys learning tips such as storing vegetables in a paper bag with a paper towel in the crisper drawer. "They keep a long time that way," she said.

St. Christopher's Foundation for Children partners with several organizations to bring fresh local food and recipes to North Philadelphia residents with its Farm to Families program. The cost is $10 to $15, paid by cash, credit or SNAP. Eggs, meat and fish can also be purchased at affordable prices.

There are six host locations, and the Health Promotions Council provides recipes and cooking demonstrations to go with the food in the weekly box. Health educators pass out samples with recipes and answer questions.

The two sites in the first year received 466 registrants who purchased 1,435 boxes over the year, according to program director Ann Hoskins-Brown. Expanding to six sites the second year increased participation to 1,436, purchasing 9,735 boxes.

"When you think about it, that's almost 49 tons of fresh local produce, so the demand is there," she said. She attributes much of their success to being a 12-month program and that St. Christopher's Foundation physicians bring their patients into the program.

Kathryn Tiscavitch lives around the corner from the New Kensington CDC Garden Center site and describes the program as "a great help."

"I can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables every week," she said. "Instead of canned, now I get it right from the farm."

While Tiscavitch already knew how to cook, she marvels at some of the produce. "One time we got a cantaloupe the size of my head. And I hadn't had eggplant since I was a child."

Kathy Deacy-Moore of Bridesburg also picks up at the New Kensington Farm to Families location. She's raising three of her grandchildren, ages 13 to 17, and finds the weekly box a boon to their table.

"The cooking demonstrations are a big help, and the kids learn something about cooking, too," said Deacy-Moore. She said the lessons are especially helpful when she's faced with unfamiliar ingredients.

"I didn't know how to cut a mango or avocado," said Deacy-Moore, "and I never thought you could mix meat and fruit like the mango chicken recipe."

She said one of her challenges has been finding enough space in the refrigerator for all the produce. Her grandkids like sampling new things. Their one negative comment? "Too much cabbage."

Lauren Nocito is the assistant director of community services at the Health Promotion Council. In creating recipes, she said, "We try make things familiar and easy, but we also like to put something new and different in front of people and expand their palates."

Sometimes participants are rushed and don't have time for classes or demos, but nutrition education is an important piece in changing eating habits, Nocito said. "Every person out there wants to feed their family in the most healthful way."

Lari Robling is the author of the acclaimed cookbook Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten and believes we need to save our treasured family recipes. As a food stylist and writer, she's been in the kitchen with celebrity chefs, but nothing makes her happier than championing the home cook. Follow her on Twitter @larirobling.

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