A 21st Century Journalism Project

The Hardest Meal to Prepare

In Organizations on April 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm

By: LIZ JOFERY

With humanity’s capacity to learn comes an even greater capacity for ignorance. Learned knowledge replaced survival instincts. Every human skill comes from either trial and error or teaching from others. Fail to teach even the simplest of skills to the next generation, and the handicap begins a domino effect on generations to come.

For Americans, a growing handicap is an inability to cook.

Organizations like Women, Infants and Children (WIC) step in to teach the necessary skills like cooking. WIC is a federal food and nutrition service designed to provide specialized support for mothers to ensure proper nutrition, education and counseling.

Women who struggle financially and care for children have to make sure their family not only has enough to eat, but gets proper nutrition. The working poor who lack cooking skills and healthy eating habits may find it even harder to afford fresh fruits or make the time to go grocery shopping and prepare meals even once a day.

A typical pantry should have some nutritional diversity. Unfortunately it is common for them to be filled with junk food or ready-to-cook meals with no nutritional value. (Photo by Liz Jofery)

Sue Morris, a nutritionist of 20 years for WIC, says that many families live on microwave and boxed meals.

“People rely on boxed processed food because it’s one step,” Morris said. “They’ve grown up for generations not having food cooked.”

As a dedicated nutritionist for WIC, she handles nutrition counseling, blood work, food packaging, and assesses risk factors in participants, which include anemia, obesity, smoking and overall poor diet. She does everything she can to initiate eligible people into the program.

“If you’re income eligible, no one gets turned away,” Morris said. “We always find a risk factor, even if it’s one serving low on vegetables. We want people to be in the program.”

Morris also added that the recession has not come with an increased number of participants. Ever since the Obama administration and the increased food stamps, fewer people are on WIC programs because people are able to buy what they need with food stamps.

WIC checks are somewhat more regulated than food stamps: milk, certain cereals, eggs, peanut butter, beans, juice, fruits, vegetables, infant formulas and baby food are permissible items.

Although there is a strong push for breast feeding, under special circumstances, such as caring for sick or allergic children, WIC also offers infant nutrition counseling and may cover the costs of special formulas if they are prescribed by a doctor, formulas which can cost thousands of dollars a month.

As a federal program WIC relies on government funding, but must also operate according to government mandates. This can create problems as easily as it can solve them. Simple improvements like technology and staff sound like good ideas, but the money and effort spent on technology does not translate to aid for the participants.

“The focus is technology and staff, which do not actually improve nutrition education. Technology doesn’t help one bit…. Computers don’t really help the participants,” Morris said.

“WIC does a good job for what it attempts to do, but they could do amazingly more… if it focused on teaching people to learn about food instead of giving out WIC checks.”

Education and demonstration, Morris insists, are the most important things WIC could offer, but they often fall short of the demand.

“Most – not all – but most participants we serve are low-income, under educated and in need of nutrition and health education,” Morris said. “We’re set up as a talking program. It’s not an effective way to teach. We need demonstrative ways, which are more effective for young moms who don’t know how to cook.”

WIC participants would benefit most from education in cooking, meal planning, shopping and budgeting both time and money. WIC must improve its service in these areas, according to Morris, if it is to have more impact in the long run.

“They need to be motivated to eat better. They have to understand the benefits of healthy food and the detrimental effects of junk. They have to understand the affects it has on children’s weight and behavior. WIC needs to expand services that teach the value of healthy eating and how to accomplish it….  Why don’t we have cooking classes or demonstrations? Take them shopping and show them what to buy? It’s frustrating and hard to teach people the difference between one and the other, why beans and rice are healthy as opposed to Mac and Cheese, hot dogs and chicken nuggets.”

Even with motivation and education, cooking is easier said than done. It takes time, something some parents simply don’t have. Children become addicted to fatty, salty food because parents don’t offer it, and eventually it is all they will eat, Morris said.

“Although you can’t buy Lucky Charms with WIC checks, parents buy it afterwards because kids like it.”

Doing the dishes or even loading and unloading the dishwasher is a necessary chore, but for some parents there aren't enough hours in the day. They are already too exhausted. (Photo by Liz Jofery)

Financial hardship and a lack of education perpetuate a cycle for working class families. Keeping up with the bills can mean putting in more hours at work, subtracting from the time available to prepare a meal. There simply aren’t enough hours in a day for basic needs.

“People don’t know how to make good decisions because they’re struggling to get by. They’re struggling to get through the day,” Morris said. “People are… overwhelmed…. The working poor especially struggle. They get by on not a lot of money, resources or support… and there’s one more thing they have to do like cook a meal. It’s more than they can accomplish.

“Raising children is a daunting task. There are young moms with lots of kids. It’s a tough job.”

Morris considers herself to be a bit radical about food and nutrition, but sees it as a fundamental part of life, and it is the reason she became a nutritionist.

However, perhaps only in the context of nutritionally-deficient societies could such attitudes be considered radical. We, who lack such basic skills in so advanced a world, are probably the ones out of touch with reality. The hardest meal to prepare is the one that’s never been made before, and the ones who are hardest to teach are the ones too busy to learn.

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