A Report on Low-Income Families' Efforts to Cook Healthy Meals

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Most low-income families cook at home at least five times per week and consider healthy meals to be both important and realistic, but a struggle.

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I was invited to a press event to announce the results of a survey conducted by Share Our Strength's Cooking Matters program. The program and the survey, "It's DinnertimeA Report on Low-Income Families' Efforts to Plan, Shop for and Cook Healthy Meals," are sponsored by the ConAgra Foods Foundation.

I went because I was interested in the survey and also because I admire the work of chef Sara Moulton who, among many other things, works with Share Our Strength on this program.

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Cooking Matters is part of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Campaign. Its goal is to help low-income families increase access to public food resources (food assistance benefits, farmers' market coupons) and produce healthy meals at low cost. It does this through a six-week course that teaches shopping strategies, meal planning, and cooking.

The research produced some important findings, perhaps obvious:

  • Eight out of 10 low-income families cook at home at least five times per week, more if they are poorer.
  • Eight-five percent of low-income families consider eating healthy meals to be important and realistic.
  • Low-income families struggle to put healthy meals on the table: food costs and preparation time are big barriers.
  • Low-income families are eager for cooking and budgeting tips and tools.

Where does ConAgra fit in?

ConAgra owns countless food product brands that pack the center aisles of supermarkets.

Working under the premise that it takes more than food to fight hunger, the ConAgra Foods Foundation, a national sponsor of Cooking Matters, funded "It's Dinnertime" as part of its ongoing strategy to find sustainable solutions to help surround kids with the nourishment they need to flourish.

The ConAgra Foods Foundation is funded solely by ConAgra Foods. One of the study's conclusions is very much in ConAgra's interest:

A better understanding of the health benefits of frozen and canned fruits and vegetables could also put more healthy options in reach for low-income families: While 81 percent of low-income parents rated fresh produce as extremely healthy, that rating drops down to 32 percent when it comes to frozen fruits and vegetables and 12 percent with canned fruits and vegetables.

The program works to improve the image of frozen and canned fruits and vegetables among low-income families.

Ordinarily, food industry-sponsored programs make me squirm. This one makes me squirm less than most even though Sara Moulton was cooking with at least one ConAgra product: Wesson Oil.

But the program worked with 18,000 families last year and its goals make sense.

Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables really do retain much of the nutritional value of fresh produce unless they are loaded with salt and sugars. Sara was cooking with low-salt products and the dishes she made were easy, inexpensive, nutritious, and quite delicious.

I'm impressed with how this program teaches families to fend for themselves in today's tough environment.

Now, if ConAgra would just get busy promoting policies to improve access to healthy foods for everyone....

Image: Zurijeta/Shutterstock.

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This post also appears on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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