Helping people living in poverty eat healthier (and save money)

Syllas, Ryland, Christian and Jess Parker plant their box garden. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET)
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September 25, 2018 - 6:45am

Getting healthy foods and eating healthy meals is often a challenge for people living in poverty. A unique Lincoln program helps people in need grow their own food, and learn to plan and cook meals.

A sunny, late May afternoon is a good time for Jess Parker and her kids to work in their garden. In a four foot by four foot box they’re planting a variety of vegetables: green beans, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, lavender, strawberries and more. Nearby are corn, tomatoes and other plants they got started earlier in the spring. 

NET videographer Ralph Hammack and audio engineer Andy Bigham record Christian and Jess Parker planting their garden (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET). Watch the video version of the Growing Great Beginnings story HERE


Syllas Parker helps assemble zucchini boats (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET)


Jill Bomberger, Community Action Early Head Start and Head Start director (Image by Dylan Tilley, NET)


Sheila Stratton, Community Action Nutrition and Wellness coach (Image by Ralph Hammack, NET)

Ryland, Syllas and Christian - ages 10, 8 and 2 – help in different ways. Pressing seeds into the soil and writing what’s been planted on a paper chart.

It’s the second year they’ve had a garden in their suburban Lincoln backyard. It’s more than a hobby. It’s part of Growing Great Beginnings. A five-year-old Lancaster and Saunders Counties Community Action Partnership project, it helps people living in poverty learn how to grow their own food, and plan and cook healthy meals.

It’s an element of Community Action’s Head Start program that serves about 400 Lincoln area children and families.

“We did a survey of families and found that just over half of them, 53 percent, told us that they worried on a regular basis whether they were going to have enough money to put food on the table,” said Jill Bomberger, Early Head Start and Head Start director for Community Action. “Really the goal of Growing Great Beginnings is to help parents of young children really learn how to be able to provide healthy meals for their kids on the budget that they have.”

For Parker and her kids that budget isn’t a lot. They live below the poverty level, which is $2,000 a month for a family their size. The last couple years have been especially tough.

“My fiance, my children's dad, died in 2016 unexpectedly,” Parker said. “And then, almost exactly a year later, I was diagnosed with cancer and dealt with cancer.”

Now cancer-free, Parker has earned a little money working at a childcare. But being a single parent raising three kids is her full-time job. Living in her dad’s house helps. So does Growing Great Beginnings. Concepts like meal planning were foreign before the family started the program a few years ago.

“Originally, I was going to the store sometimes twice or three times a day because it would just be like ‘what do you guys feel like eating? Oh, mac and cheese. Okay. Let's run to the store and get it,’” Parker said.

“The other thing that emerged out of those first visits was she had this sense of just being exhausted from just making meals,” said Sheila Stratton, Community Action Nutrition and Wellness coach. She’s been meeting with Parker at her house, helping her plan healthier meals and cut the number of shopping trips from three a day to three a week or less.

Stratton also helped them start a garden. “I think she was seeing the garden as a way to supplement her family's meals, if possible, and she needed to find a way to better manage that necessary thing of going to the grocery store.”

“The idea of gardening with young children and families, there's really two approaches and two goals with it,” Bomberger added. “The first is that we know when kids are engaged with their food and fruits and vegetables, they're more likely to want to try that. Right now kids are harvesting cucumbers in our gardens and it's so exciting. I haven't seen a kid yet who harvested and cucumber and didn't want to try it. Back in January, we might have put a cucumber in front of them, there would have been a lot more reluctance to eat that.

“The other part of the gardening aspect that we really like is families are all in different places, but for some families they really want to be able to grow their own food,” Bomberger said. “It's an affordable way for them to be able to provide that healthy food to their family. Maybe it's a way for them to be able to grow foods that they ate in their home countries that they're not able to get here, and then experience that with their children as well.”

Two months later, in July, Parker and family are in their kitchen making lunch. Much of the ingredients are from their garden, including that box planter that’s now overflowing.

There are zucchini boats filled with a hamburger mixture, cauliflower mashed potatoes, cucumber salad and zucchini cake.

Sheila Stratton is back to watch, advise and eat. “She got the kids involved in the meal planning from the get go. I mean you can kind of see the wonderful outcome of that. They sit down together, pick out their meals.”

Parker makes fewer trips to the grocery store, and spends less on food. “Maybe $15 to $20 per day then and maybe $5 to $10 a day now, for all three meals for all of us,” she told us.

“An average dinner before starting the program would be boxed meals, Hamburger Helper, macaroni and cheese, things that were simple but didn't take a lot of work and weren't too healthy,” Parker added. “After we started the program, we utilized a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables and meats.”

Bomberger said they’ve seen other positive results from Growing Great Beginnings. “Over the past several years we've been collecting data and regularly we have seen kids who are drinking fewer sweetened beverages, who are getting more sleep at night, who are eating more fruits and vegetables really in statistically significant ways. We are really excited to see data that's saying this is really making a difference. Hopefully we’ll be able to see, long-term, some of those health outcomes that come along with that.”

Growing Great Beginnings requires a lot of one-on-one contact. It’s resource-intense. Not cheap. It’s funded by private grants (including support from the Community Health Endowment of Lincoln and Children's Hospital and Medical Center). Bomberger said it’s a worthwhile investment. “We know that by the time kids are two- to five-years-old, whether or not they're overweight really has life-long implications. They're five times more likely to be overweight when they're adolescent, which then carries into adulthood. We see all sorts of things come along with that obesity whether it's diabetes or asthma. Also some of the social things; academic difficulties, depression, anxiety. Those are all things that really impact that lifelong well-being and the ability to graduate high school and go on to have good employment and good health throughout their life.”

This lunch showed the progress the family has made. And after years of challenges, Jess Parker has more goals for the future. “I hope to write my own cookbook with my kids, and I hope that my kids would learn more skills in the kitchen as they grow older.”




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