YAKIMA, Wash. — Maria Guadalupe Gomez Zuniga brings her 6-year-old son with her to health and nutrition classes sponsored by the Washington State University Yakima County Extenstion, where they learn together about reading food nutrition labels, preparing healthy meals and planning out a week’s groceries.
Now, she says, he gets excited when class days roll around, and points out all the good and bad foods in the supermarket aisles.
“He’s always looking: ‘Mami, this has actually whole grains’; ‘Mami, this one is better,’ Gomez Zuniga said after her Wednesday class this week. “He’s really curious.”
WSU’s program is one of numerous in the Yakima Valley aiming to make nutritious food accessible and desirable, particularly among low-income communities.
Though Yakima sits in the heart of an agricultural mecca, not everyone has actually the time, resources or inclination to seek out fresh produce and cook healthy meals every night. And according to the state Department of Health in 2015, 31 percent of Yakima County adults are obese, while 9 percent have diabetes.
“A lot of these families are working two jobs, or they’re working agricultural jobs, which are 10- or 12-hour days,” said Gina Ord, county director of health and nutrition programs at the WSU Extension. “When you factor in childcare, family care, plus being low-income — you don’t have time to sit down and chop a lot of vegetables and cook a meal with raw products.”
Programs through local hospitals, farmers markets and food banks work to educate people about how to shop for and prepare fresh produce, including all the places they can use state assistance to buy fruits and vegetables.
Many farmers market vendors in the Valley accept Women, Infants and Children nutritional program vouchers, checks that go out to families qualifying for the WIC program can be used to buy groceries.
In Sunnyside, Yakima Neighborhood Health Services’ WIC office sets up a booth at the market on Wednesday evenings and distributes the checks to eligible families – $20 in $4 increments, up to $60 per family, if there are eligible children in the household.
Another program is a partnership between Neighborhood Health and the UnitedHealthcare insurance company called “Small Steps,” which functions as a prescription for healthy food. Twice a month, clients from various Neighborhood Health services can bring their completed form to the Sunnyside market and trade it for $10 worth of tokens, which they can spend on produce. The market vendors are then reimbursed by the state.
WSU’s Ord said they’re working to get more farm stands to accept EBT cards for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) dollars, as well. Fruit City in Union Gap currently takes the cards.
However, not everyone qualifies for WIC or food stamps.
There’s a gap in services for folks who aren’t quite middle class but still aren’t eligible for assistance, says Kate Gottlieb, Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital sustainability and well-being coordinator.
“Those are the people I’m worried about,” she said. “Those are the people that are buying processed foods … Those are the people we need to have more of an impact on and change more health behaviors. because those are the people that think, ‘Oh, it’s convenient for me to eat this way because I don’t have time.’”
People are especially prone to grabbing the convenient option when they’re stressed out, she said, despite the fact that it’s often the unhealthy option.
Like Neighborhood Health, some Memorial programs can write “prescriptions” for $10 worth of fruits and vegetables, but only if providers can ascertain that the client is on SNAP.
The money comes as a grant from the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This summer Memorial is hosting a farmers market in the hospital cafe courtyard every Friday, where visitors also can try a healthy recipe created by the hospital chef using produce from Memorial’s own garden.
A grant through Wal-Mart allows the hospital to give certain program participants a “tasty crate” every week full of local organic produce from Bella Terra Gardens in Zillah.
Memorial also teamed up with Kohl’s Healthy For Life program this spring to offer free cooking classes for families in both English and Spanish, teaching about healthy recipes on a budget.
“Our goal with that is to say, ‘Come and learn a recipe, see how easy it is,’” Gottlieb said. “You can buy fruits and vegetables and implement them into your diet — you can adapt these small changes. It’s all about awareness.”
But it’s often hard to engage the SNAP population, because people don’t necessarily want to change their habits. It can take several experiences with nutrition programs before lessons stick.
WSU’s classes, which fall under USDA’s Expanded Food, Nutrition and Education Program, also include cooking demonstrations, along with 20 minutes of physical activity and lessons on finding coupons for grocery stores and comparing prices between brand-name and generic products.
Nutrition educator Jasmin Silva said a popular recipe has actually been the quinoa salad, which tastes like ceviche with cilantro, onions, chili peppers, cucumber, tomatoes and lime, but substitutes quinoa for shrimp. Participants get to practice chopping and cooking in class.
A tough transition for numerous participants is going from visiting the grocery store every day, to planning out several days’ worth of meals and shopping just once for the week.
She said the classes serve as a kind of support group for participants, who often encounter resistance from friends and family who still enjoy their packaged foods and sugary beverages.
Since October, about 200 people have come through WSU’s nutrition classes, most are Spanish-speaking.
Gomez Zuniga recommends the class to friends, and is always sharing the recipes she’s learned.
It’s especially important for her as a mother, she said, as she doesn’t want to start her kids off on bad habits.
WSU Instructors also go to the Sunnyside farmers market to reach out to local shoppers and offer some basic nutrition education. On Wednesday this week, instructor Andrea Sagrero was showing kids how to make a “butterfly” with a clothespin and a plastic baggie full of carrots and snap peas.
When it comes to supplying fresh produce, Northwest Harvest is a major player in the area.
From July 2015 through June 2016, the Yakima warehouse distrbitued 1.1 million pounds of fresh fruit and 1.2 million pounds of fresh vegetables to food banks and meal programs in its network, spokeswoman Sheri Bissell said. About 75 percent of the food the company distributes is donated, while the rest is purchased using cash donations.
Northwest Harvest also has actually a program — Growing Connections — that aims to link food banks with small farmers and other ways to increase their fresh produce offerings.
That includes gleaning, establishing direct-purchase agreements with farmers, working with local community gardens, or planting their own gardens if they have the space.
The organization has actually conducted workshops in the Yakima area over the past year to connect various food banks so they can share good ideas. About five food banks from Yakima have been involved this year, said Laura Titzer, Hunger Response Programs Manager with Northwest Harvest’s Seattle office.
Sunrise Outreach director of operations Ken Trainor said the Growing Connections program is more successful in smaller, rural areas where the food banks have personal relationships with local farmers.
Sunrise Outreach has actually food banks in Yakima, Wapato, Mabton and Sunnyside.
While Northwest Harvest does “a wonderful job” of collecting donated produce, food banks often run into a bottleneck with a lack of storage.
“The biggest problem food banks have is capacity,” he said. “There are a lot of food banks out there that do not have commercial walk-in refrigerators or freezers, that try to get by with household freezers. That takes the shelf life (of produce) down a lot.”
That’s one reason why boxed and canned foods, often high in sodium and low on fruits and vegetables, are such mainstays of food banks — they won’t go bad, and therefore won’t go wasted.
Sunrise Outreach’s Yakima food bank is only open for a few hours every Thursday. If Trainor has actually leftover produce, he tries to give it to other food banks that may be open other days, or sometimes sends it to a farmer to feed to livestock so it doesn’t just end up in the trash.
He’s applied for grants trying to pay for more commercial refrigeration space, but hasn’t yet gotten what he needs.
“If I had the capacity in my food banks, the produce would certainly last longer and I could do a lot more with it,” Trainor said.