Local Food Groups Stress Why Fresh Food is Best

Turn on almost any TV show aimed at kids and it becomes bitingly clear why getting children to eat healthy, wholesome foods can be difficult. Commercial after commercial touts artificially colored, sugar-laden processed foods, while the only marketing effort behind, say, kale pretty much comes from Mom, Dad or Grandma and maybe an enthusiastic lunch lady (if you’re lucky).

Parents need to counteract the messages that good, healthy food doesn’t taste good and get their kids thinking about – and enjoying – good nutrition. Luckily, lots of organizations are doing that work in Detroit, in ways ranging from providing food to kids who might not otherwise get a healthy meal to teaching kids how to run a food business before they even graduate from high school.

Mobile markets making a difference

It’s a natural partnership, because local markets understand their role as not just sellers of food but promoters of healthy living and healthy communities. Many work to counteract the food desert atmosphere in some neighborhoods in Detroit by bringing markets right to the neighborhoods.

“If they can’t get to Eastern Market, we’ll bring Eastern Market to them,” says Fiona Ruddy director of Food Access Programs for Eastern Market Corporation. The market has a fleet of “Farm Stand” trucks that head into the neighborhoods weekly June through October. The trucks not only bring affordable and delicious produce to neighborhoods where that can be hard to find, but they also are staffed by knowledgeable folks who provide cooking demos, tastings and suggestions about how to use different in-season veggies. This year, trucks will also feature specialty food items from vendors such as nut butters, nutrition bars and other healthy snacks.

“We want to be to be a counterpoint to some of the other convenience-food items and provide people with healthier choices, that are both healthier for them physically and for the local economy,” Ruddy says.

Neighborhood gathering and grazing

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Farmers markets are a great way to get kids talking not just about healthy eating for themselves, but also about healthy communities on a larger scale. Chatting with the people who grew the food they are buying – or simply talking with kids about how food gets to the people who eat it – can have a big impact on their eating habits.

At the Northwest Detroit Farmers’ Market in the city’s North Rosedale Park, market director Chelsea Neblett organizes health screenings, cooking demos and MyPlate healthy eating education for kids, as well as fun activities like pumpkin bowling, watermelon seed-spitting contests and a field day for kids.

The Northwest Detroit market is held weekly in a park nestled inside this beautiful neighborhood. Neblett says they envision the space as a community gathering hub. There’s a “community living room” area with Adirondack chairs and side tables, where people can rest or sample some of the bounty they picked up at the market. “It makes food more interactive and more community based – you can talk to neighbors about what they bought and what you bought. It’s not just about food but about community, and a fun place to go and be,” Neblett says.

Find out about this market and others in Detroit at detroitmarkets.org.

Lessons in eating and entrepreneurship

One of the vendors most popular with kids at Detroit-area farmers market is the Detroit Food Academy. DFA partners with students at several Detroit schools for a leadership development program that teaches students how to create a business centered around the “triple bottom line” – people, planets and profit – and how to develop food products for those businesses.

One product, Mitten Bites (a kind of healthy cookie with oats and fruit), will be available at Whole Foods Market in Detroit and at several farmers markets this year. According to Neblett, kids really like talking with the Detroit Food Academy vendors because they’re also children and teens. Other products developed and sold by DFA students include popcorn with different spice blends, granola and a low-sugar, all-natural version of Fruit Roll-Ups.

Jen Rusicano, director of the Detroit Food Academy, says they talk about a wide spectrum of healthy eating habits with the students, rather than a more prohibitive approach. “We use a broad nutrition framework borrowed from Michael Pollan’s Food Rules – eat real food, not too much, mostly plants – and want them to think about what food will nourish their body and soul,” she says.

Everything is made from whole ingredients, and they talk through ways to emphasize seasonality – if the kids can’t buy strawberries from Michigan in season, can they be bought direct from a farm in California? Or can they be purchased at a Detroit independently owned grocery store, so that the money they spend stays in the community? Even if the program’s graduates don’t go on to have a career in the food business, they learn to think about food and business in ways that will serve them throughout their lives.

Fresh and free food for kids

For some families, summer can mean facing hunger. The difficulty of replacing free school lunches for families in economic hardship means kids must make do with some less-than-healthy food – or sometimes don’t eat at all. To combat summer hunger, United Way for Southeastern Michigan supports the Meet Up and Eat Up summer feeding program in its role as state convener for the No Kid Hungry coalition. Kids under 18 can get a meal at 300-plus sites in Detroit, free of charge. Because of a provision called community eligibility, any child who comes for a meal can get one. The meals – typically a sandwich, fruit, vegetable and milk – are good for kids but also appetizing for them. “It’s extremely important that we provide children with access to tasty, healthy food 365 days a year through the Meet Up and Eat Up program,” says Melissa Rapp-Shaw, manager of No Kid Hungry for UWSEM. “We work closely with vendors and sponsors to make sure meals are appealing to kids and fuel their growing minds and bodies.”

Meals are available at schools, churches and parks; several local farmers markets also are Meet Up and Eat Up sites this year. To find a site near you, call 2-1-1 or text “FoodMI” to 877-877.

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