Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Where to Start

by Ona Balkus, Operation Frontline DC Assistant Coordinator, Americorps VISTA

Last week, the Washington Post ran a series of articles entitled: “Young Lives at Risk: Our Overweight Children”, highlighting the child obesity epidemic that is causing disease, and in some cases death, for many of our nation’s children. I was impressed and touched by the Post writers’ insight, focus, and sensitivity regarding the issue. The personal profiles of young people in the DC area such as David Quiroz, 12, who last fall weighed 215 pounds, were the most effective stories for me, as we heard from local communities about their fear when a child’s weight hinders his or her well-being. David, a determined young man, struggles every day to resist the unhealthy foods that penetrate his school and community.

When we hold an Operation Frontline class for parents, they often talk about their children’s weight as something they would like to control but don’t understand how they can improve their family’s food routines. Comparisons to their own childhood and confusion about how this epidemic has evolved run rampant. And it’s true—we all ate candy and cookies when we were young (many more of us also had access to safe playgrounds and streets). Parents also feel the pulls of a basic instinct: to nourish and show love for their children by providing the foods that their children demand. When a family is low-income, the need to provide nourishment for one’s children is in jeopardy, and can entail more consumption of high calorie, unhealthy, inexpensive foods. Food brings the family together, a bright point in daily lives otherwise strained by costly bills and unsafe neighborhoods.

Veronica Gray, the guardian of a young woman struggling with her weight, conveys this feeling in one Post article. "We're not big drinkers or big smokers, but we have food… That's the joy; that's the good feeling. Food is comforting. But in the long run, it is only hurting us."

I enjoyed the glimpses of progress that the Post writers documented, such as the principal in Columbia Heights who has pledged to lose 100 lbs. over the course of the school year as a symbolic figure for a school-wide effort to become healthier. This type of personal behavior change is a valuable component of the fight against childhood obesity. Having watched the changes that Operation Frontline participants make, I can attest to the power of information and intention.

However, the Post series also affirms the need for larger, systemic improvements in our national food system. Even with education and a will to change, parents are still raising a generation of children awash in junk food commercials, afraid to play outside, cut off from sufficient P.E. classes and relying on vending machines as their main food source at school. This needs to be a policy priority in all levels of government through a variety of means, including education, marketing, food subsidies, and financial aid.

Washington Post “Facts You Should Know” #5: “Only 2 percent of U.S. children eat a healthy diet as defined by the USDA.

Thank you to the Washington Post for starting this long-overdue conversation.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Playing with our food!

by Becky Handforth, Operation Frontline DC Coordinator

Last week we decided to mix up class a bit. Instead of planning recipes to teach the participants, we had the participants choose what they wanted to make. I collaborated with Kaitlin, our volunteer chef, to pick a variety of ingredients that would function for numerous recipes. The theme: breakfast.

First, we split into two groups. With some brainstorming help from our volunteers, Kaitlin, Sapna, and Ellen, the participants decided to make breakfast burritos, fruit salad and muffins.

Ellen worked with the burrito group. They decided to make the burritos with peppers, mushrooms, onions, broccoli, garlic, cheese, sausage and of course, eggs. We have used cumin frequently in the series, so the participants decided to add a hint of that to the egg medley too. The funniest part of the evening was when the participants found out the sausage was actually a vegetarian variety. While they were cooking, Ellen told the participants it was turkey sausage, which was an honest mistake. It wasn’t until they were eating the burritos that I happened to mention it was made of soy. Despite the fact that they were a bit weirded out by the thought of eating soy sausage, they still enjoyed the flavor of the burritos. Even our pickiest participant ate a burrito...her first taste of Operation Frontline food and a big accomplishment for us!

The other group was in charge of the fruit salad and the muffins. We only had a recipe for pumpkin muffins, which the participants didn’t want to make. So Kaitlin, being a true Operation Frontline volunteer, was flexible! Using the pumpkin muffin recipe as a guide, we took what we had on hand to make what I like to call experimental muffins. As you all know, baking takes precision. But along with a dash of faith, we added lemon yogurt, applesauce, bananas, raisins, strawberries and almonds to the bowl of basic ingredients. Kind of crazy, but the muffins actually turned out well. All of us, volunteers and participants, were proud of our recipe’s success. Amidst all the excitement of muffin experimentation, I forgot to take photos! Of course, I’m regretting that now.

Ever since that class, I’ve been debating whether or not we just had good luck or if our strawberry banana muffins might actually be something worth repeating. If anyone wants to test it out for us, please take a stab at our “recipe” and let us know what happens. Here is the approximation of what we put in the muffins along with some side notes:

Strawberry Banana Muffins

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar (I would love to cut this down)

1 ½ tsp baking powder

1/8 tsp salt

1 ½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

1 large egg white

½ cup applesauce

2/3 cup low-fat lemon yogurt

3 Tbsp canola oil

½ tsp vanilla extract

1 banana sliced

1 cup strawberries sliced

1/4 of raisins (omit if you think adding them is too weird)

¼ cup slivered almonds


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease muffin tins with cooking spray or butter.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.

3. Combine egg white, applesauce, yogurt, canola oil, and vanilla in medium bowl and mix well.

4. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Do not over mix!

5. Gently stir in banana, strawberries, raisins and almonds.

6. Bake muffins for 25-30 minutes, until muffin tops are lightly browned.

7. Cool and Enjoy!

Tonight is our graduation celebration! Throughout the series, this group has mentioned traditional southern food such as greens, mashed potatoes, cornbread, fried chicken and pie as their favorite cuisine. So, we’ve decided to create a “down home cookin’” night. The feast will include flaky baked “fried” chicken (still using chicken but not frying it), sesame collard greens, cornbread and berry cobbler. I don’t know about you, but my mouth is watering.

It’s true that Operation Frontline emphasizes being open-minded about trying new foods, but it is fun to show participants how to put a healthy twist on their favorite recipes too.

Time to run to class!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Navigating the sea of American food

by Ona Balkus
Assistant Coordinator of Operation Frontline DC, Americorps VISTA

Amid children running around our feet and three languages being spoken in this small living room turned classroom, we discuss with these mothers how they can feed their families and themselves better in a new country. At Parklawn Family Center, we are working with women from El Salvador, Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Nepal, among others. Rachel, the amazing site coordinator, watches the children, while our invaluable translator Maggie enables the Spanish-speaking women to participate in the discussion.

The women have noticed their children gaining weight, and have heard that enticing American foods like brightly colored “fruit” drinks, **cartoon-clad yogurt containers, and a 30 foot long cereal aisle might be the culprits. Hearing these women’s stories, I am continually struck with questions: Why should shopping for food be so hard? If you walk into a store with the intention of buying yogurt, meat, bread, and fruit juice for your family, why is it possible that you can leave with piles of sugar and oils in your cart while believing you have found all that you were looking for?

The answers to these questions are multi-faceted, and while I am starting to form some opinions, I can’t point fingers or prescribe solutions just yet. What I can assert is that as the American food system stands now, Operation Frontline’s approach to educate people on cooking and nutrition creates positive, visible change. It’s our mission and passion to empower participants like these women to make better choices about food. We teach them how to read the nutrition facts behind the cartoon characters and the unit prices under the pre-sliced vegetables, with the goal that the next time they are at the supermarket, they leave the store with healthier food and a comparable, if not lower, grocery bill.

Of course, the food should also taste good, which is where Remke comes in. Our tireless chef volunteer has shown them pita pizzas, vegetarian chili, and in this fourth class, a roasted vegetable pasta with a “cream sauce” made of Greek yogurt and parmesan cheese. We eat well here!

During the fifth class, which takes place at the grocery store, the women can put their new skills into practice. First, we tour the grocery store, talking about unit pricing and comparing nutrition information on the back of food containers. The women compare saturated fat content, sodium, and fiber in the products they like. Price increases for convenient food packaging are also notable, such as pre-chopped broccoli versus an entire head or prepared BBQ chickens versus whole raw chickens. It’s important to identify when you are willing to pay for convenience and why you are paying more.

Afterwards the participants receive $10 giftcards to shop for healthy meal ingredients or snacks. I feel a little like a food cop, sending one woman back into the aisles to return the Oreos to the shelf after we look over the nutrition facts together. But when she comes back with a bag full of bananas (on her own accord!), I feel gratified. Each woman walks away with a heaping bag full of healthy food, as well as new detective skills they can use next time they shop.

The grocery store class is always a little sad for me too, as I see the looks of frustration on some participants’ faces as they discover the hidden sugars and fats in their childen’s favorite foods. I am definitely the bearer of bad news, but I hope they can forgive me for it. It frustrates me too that I have to teach these things; that a well-intentioned person can’t walk into a grocery store and leave with nutritious foods that will sustain her family. But with the lessons learned and changes made after this class, I hope these women can navigate the terrain of this new country a little bit better, sharing their new knowledge with friends and families.

** A 4 ounce container of Trix Yoplait Strawberry yogurt provides only 10% of one’s daily value of calcium (1/3 of the calcium in a normal serving of plain yogurt).
It also provides 17g of sugar, which is equal to 4 teaspoons of sugar.
Add cinnamon and brown sugar or lemon juice and honey to plain yogurt—it’s delicious!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Our Film Debut!

by Ona Balkus

Operation Frontline Assistant Coordinator, Americorps VISTA

A couple of months ago, a group of students from Georgetown University contacted us about making a documentary on Operation Frontline DC for their class Social Justice Documentary. At first we were slightly wary. The logistics of getting media releases for our participants seemed daunting, not to mention fitting a camera crew into the small kitchens already full of volunteers and participants cooking together. As it turned out, like most things, nothing worthwhile is easy.

The product of this group’s hard work is simply amazing. The documentary looks professionally done, with artistic shots, steady camera work, and even a customized musical score. The untiring efforts of these students throughout the filming process, from waiting for late interviewees to convincing a protective principle to let the cameras into the after school program, was so impressive. Most importantly, the group’s sincere intentions to portray our program accurately and the participants respectfully really showed, with a final product that in 10 minutes gets to the core of what Operation Frontline DC is all about.

We plan on using the video for volunteer orientations, trainings, new site visits, and general marketing of the Operation Frontline program. Honestly, we’ll probably show it to anyone we can corner for 10 minutes! We are so grateful to this fine film crew, which includes:

Luke Hillman, Editor
Danielle Thomas, Director
Regina Moore, Producer
Anastasia Doherty, Writer

You all are the best!

Another special thanks to our chefs, Remke and Scott, our participant, Helene, our “dairy godmother” Janet, and the participants of Mazique Family and Child Center and Drew Model school for participating in the video.

You can watch the video and also read more about the documentary project at: www.dashofchange.com