The gap between earning a living and supporting a family has become so broad for some families that they must make the devastating choice between putting food on the table or paying their bills.
Teresa “Tree” Rufo, the food services director at LifePath Christians Ministries, says one out of every 10 York County residents don’t know where their next meal is coming from. About 40 to 42 percent of those people make too much to qualify for federal assistance programs like SNAP but still don’t earn enough to make healthy food accessible to their families.
That’s why she was thrilled when her organization was approached by the York County Food Alliance, a group that shares the goal of helping this “forgotten group.”
Then, WellSpan Health entered the picture with an almost $5,000 grant that allowed the two entities to pilot a program that would target this population. Together, the organizations created the LifePath to Healthy Eating program. They were soon joined by organizations such as Catholic Charities, Family First Health, and WIC (Women, Infants and Children).
Opening a path to healthy food
The goal of the seven-week program is to teach families who fall in the gap about proper nutrition and improve their access to the foods that provide it. The program accepts families with at least one child under the age of 19. They are usually referred through agencies such as WIC, Rufo says.
Rufo believes that obesity and diabetes are the main risk factors for low-income families, but a common misconception is that because they are overweight, they can’t be starving.
Often, these families can only afford boxed, processed food and don’t know how to access and prepare fresh food. Thus, they settle for food that leaves them “starving for nutrients,” she says.
How the program works
The program began a year and half ago and has focused on rural and suburban areas in the county. So far, classes have been held in West York and Red Lion and are currently being held in Shrewsbury.
Two classes are held per year, and they follow the growing seasons for crops in the area, Rufo says.
Participants earn 10 “market bucks’ for every session they attend. If they have perfect attendance, they receive a lump sum of $70 they can use at a local farmers market, she says.
Each class is led by Terri Rentzel of the Penn State Extension, who uses the university’s nutrition program to teach a lesson every week. Important topics include food safety and hand washing, and all recipes are taught out of a cookbook provided by the university. At the beginning of each class, students are given a box of necessary ingredients for the recipe.
Rufo says that local farmers have been a blessing to the program, as their donations free up grant funding for other necessities.
When the last class is completed, it has become tradition for the participants to invite their families to cook a big meal together based on one of the recipes.
“It’s just a really, really cool thing,” she says.
The program is now receiving financial support from private donors, Rufo says, and that funding will take it beyond the lifespan of the grant.
It will also free the program from some of the stipulations that typically come along with grants.
They hope to add food preservation and gardening classes, as well as crop-sharing.
“We can show them how they can take a 33-cent pack of seeds and feed an entire neighborhood,” she says.
Rufo’s biggest goal may not be achievable, but she’s still going to strive for it. She dreams of taking the program into the schools, where students and parents can learn about healthy eating together.
“I really think it’s about the next generation,” she says. “I do.”