For the administrators of the food-based programs at Oklahoma’s comprehensive AIDS services organization Tulsa CARES, just making sure clients are fed isn’t enough. Improving their health and quality of life through solid nutrition is the ultimate goal.
“A recent study found that of all 50 states, Oklahoma was dead last in fruit intake,” says Marianne Wetherill, the organization’s HIV wellness dietitian. “Obviously, a lot of our clients are facing food insecurities, worrying if they’ll have enough to eat at the end of the month. While we’re continuing to address the basic hunger issue, we realize that health issues are important, too.”
“Fighting hunger, feeding health’ has become our comprehensive motto,” she adds. “There are significant health disparities that exist within the population that we serve. This is partly due to our clients not being able to afford fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods due to their limited food budgets.”
To that end, this long-term Broadway Cares grantee has developed partnerships with a local farmers market (right), eliminated junk food from its pantries, offered a monthly nutrition education class for clients and even developed a cookbook.
Titled Positive Eating: a Collection of Recipes Created by Clients, for Clients, the illustrated, full-color, 86-page cookbook (cover shown below right) gives clients affordable, easy-to-follow recipes they can make at home. This reinforces nutritional changes Tulsa CARES has made in-house over the past several years, changes which include removing as many foods with little nutritional value as possible from their food pantry and group meals.
Making a Change
“Four years ago, when I first got here, there were Ding Dongs and Twinkies in our food pantry,” says Nutrition Program Director Micah Hartwell (at left), who quickly began to transition Tulsa CARES clients to healthier foods.
“I started by replacing the junk food with Triscuits, cereal bars and wheat thins. Most of our clients appreciated the change.”
The big challenge came when Micah replaced whole milk with fat-free. “That was the hardest thing,” he says, adding that trans fats have been removed from the pantry and meals served onsite.
“We really push nutrition because hunger isn’t always the root of the problem. For a lot of clients, it’s limited access to good food choices.”
Freda, an HIV-positive client of Tulsa CARES, has seen the benefits of improving her diet. “My medical problems deal with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, over-weight and diabetes,” she says. “It’s very important to have a balanced, efficient and cost-effective diet and I have benefitted greatly from the monthly meeting of the Positive Nutrition classes.”
She explains, “I have learned to know and understand my food choices, to be aware of the ‘wrong’ choices and their consequences and to monitor my intake. I have successfully lost 15 pounds and continue to try to reach my goal. Without this program, I would still be struggling with my weight and failing myself.”
Wetherill says Tulsa CARES has experienced a surge in the number of food pantry/farmer’s market clients over the past few years, thanks to the stagnant economy.
“In 2007, we were seeing about a dozen people each month for the farmer’s market. Now we’re seeing 40 to 50!” she says. “In the last calendar year, we served over 100 people through this program.”
With “very limited transportation assistance,” Tulsa CARES serves clients in 23 counties spread over 23,000 square miles.
“So we have a lot of people who can’t afford to come to the food pantry. However, if they live more than 50 miles away, they can participate in our Wal-Mart food program, through which they receive a $40 card to use for food shopping at Wal-Mart, most of which now have a full selection of meats, dairy and fresh produce.”
Wetherill adds that the Tulsa community has been extremely supportive of the program and the organization.
“We are extremely grateful for the generosity shown by the community to this organization.”