Bright Idea: Capitalize on National Nutrition Month

Photograph of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Claire Thomas had just started Farms For Life, a program in Washington state that brings farm-fresh vegetables to homeless shelters and at-risk families and youth, when she made a delivery to the transitional living apartments operated by the Seattle nonprofit YouthCare. She had barely set the first box on a picnic table in the apartment complex, when a group of young residents came down and started happily eating right there.

“These were things they’d never seen before,” Thomas says. “Asian turnips, kale, mustard greens. One young woman turned to me and said, ‘You guys are growing this for us?’”

Like many runaway and homeless youth, YouthCare’s residents and drop-in clients have made do with subpar diets. By focusing on nutrition, the organization helps them regain their physical health and puts them on the path to greater self-sufficiency.

March is National Nutrition Month, the perfect time to commit your program to improving young people’s nutrition and helping them take control of their eating habits. We asked Joy Mills-Parker of YouthCare and Melissa Berrios, a trainer at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Homeless Health Initiative, for advice on improving youth nutrition.

Help Youth Understand the Basics

A nutrition curriculum like the one introduced in 2009 by the Homeless Health Initiative can help homeless young people eat and live more healthily. Written in part by a volunteer who was a former worker for the USDA, the initiative’s curriculum teaches essentials such as how to read a label, control portion size, and achieve moderation and balance in diet.

“We want shelter residents to feel they have power,” Berrios says. “If you’re served a plate of meat by the shelter, you can cut the fat off. You can ask for a second serving of fruit and vegetables. You can drink water instead of soda. They may not have a lot of choices, but we try to help them see where they can find some.”

Berrios and her colleagues modeled their curriculum after the USDA nutrition guidelines, which advocate low-fat meals with plenty of fruits and vegetables. To create your own curriculum for youth, enlist a volunteer with a background in nutrition, or contact the initiative by calling 215-590-7646.

Set a Nutritional Standard

Volunteers who make meals for YouthCare’s central drop-in center receive a copy of the organization’s “Meal Provider Guide,” which lays out nutritional requirements. Volunteer-cooked meals must include meat or vegetarian protein, a fresh vegetable, a carbohydrate and a sweet dessert. Other pieces of advice from the guide include:

Our youth crave nutritious food. They rarely get a good, healthy meal and often have to survive on junk food. They love fresh fruit and vegetables!

Protein is an especially important part of the meal you are serving. Our young people often do not have access to healthy, non-processed proteins. 

Get creative! Our youth get their fair share of pasta dishes. They always appreciate a little variety.

Provide Opportunities To Cook

Each one of YouthCare’s transitional living facilities holds a weekly meal night where residents cook for each other and learn about healthy eating. “We try to educate them about how to prepare the foods and about the drawbacks of eating processed food.” The Farms For Life team also regularly sends along recipes or “how-to” instructions for some of the stranger produce, like kohlrabi.

“A lot of them have had obstacles economically, opportunity-wise,” says Mills-Parker of the program’s young people. “We teach them to value health and nutrition as something that will help them in all ways.”

9-5 pm Eastern