CLEMSON, S.C. — Faculty and staff in the Clemson University College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS) used funds from Dabo’s All In Team Foundation this summer to deliver food security programs to families in Oconee County.
The program recruited 45 participants who received free boxes of fresh, primarily local produce with accompanying recipes two times per month. Participants also attended sessions with Clemson Extension Agent Kerrie Roach on growing their own produce and demonstrations on healthy cooking by Brooke Brittain, a registered dietitian who serves as program manager of public health nutrition and outreach for Clemson Rural Health.
CBSHS delivered the programs at Blue Ridge Community Center, a non-profit center in Seneca. According to Brittain, the “crisis within a crisis” that affected so much of Oconee County has only made the need for healthy food and nutrition education clearer for its citizens.
“People in this area face a lack of access to fresh, healthy foods in the best of times,” Brittain said, “but over the last year, they have been faced with both COVID-19 and the tornado that destroyed or damaged so much of the area last April. Our goal is to not just provide food but to educate people on how to grow and cook it so that the food is both healthy and delicious.”
Gardening sessions were led by Kerrie Roach of Clemson Extension. These sessions educated produce box recipients and other members of the community on effective methods of growing their own vegetables and how to pick the best soil or fertilizer for certain types of fruits and vegetables. Participants in these sessions left with gardening pots, seeds, soil and fertilizer to try their hand at gardening.
Food boxes included suggested recipes for items such as Japanese turnips that recipients may have never seen before. Brittain then used recipe cards to demonstrate how to prepare meals from food box ingredients during the program’s cooking courses.
Nutrition education was a priority during these sessions. Brittain stressed the need to balance food items on the plate while limiting salt, sugar and fat in the overall diet. Sessions also included what participants should look out for on food labels.
While participants left these sessions with new cookware and firsthand recipe knowledge, Brittain’s goal was to send them home with nutrition and cooking knowledge they could apply to any meal.
“The real challenge is showing people how to make delicious food in a quick, easy and healthy way,” Brittain said. “I like to focus on methods that can stretch a food budget while making any meal healthier. A big part of that is not assuming that people know how to utilize the food we provide or how to best prepare it.”
Brittain stressed simple approaches to budget-conscious food buying such as utilizing canned meat without preservatives, buying fruits and vegetables in season, comparing prices, factoring in store brands and buying products in bulk to keep shelves stocked. Many participants in the program were seniors or lived with older people with health conditions, so her cooking classes stressed ways to reduce sodium, fat and sugar in meals while limiting fried foods.
The program is delivered as part of Land-Grant Local Food Systems Solutions, a Clemson University initiative focused on integrating local farms and food systems to create solutions for food insecurity and hunger. CBSHS uses the program to stress solutions for food insecurity and hunger across the state by partnering with local communities and organizations such as the Blue Ridge Community Center.
Helen Rosemond-Saunders has lived in Oconee County for 75 years, and she has devoted more than half of that time to its citizens as an educator in multiple area schools. Rosemond-Saunders now serves as a board member of Blue Ridge Community Center, and she has dedicated most of her time to attracting quality community programs to it.
Rosemond-Saunders is happy to see that through the program people realize they “need a pot and not a plot” to become a successful gardener in their own home to supplement their own food supply. She said the gardening supplies and cookware have been appreciated by participants, but as someone who taught home economics for two decades, Rosemond-Saunders said the educational pieces of the food security program were by far the most valuable for the community.
“Lack of access to healthy food is a problem, but education is—to me—more important because it gets lost to time,” Rosemond-Saunders said. “We stopped teaching courses like home economics in schools, and we now see parents without the knowledge of healthy cooking that they can pass on to their kids. That’s why a program like this is important.”
Rosemond-Saunders said the program took only days to fill with participants, who ranged from their early 50s to people as old as 93. She quickly created a waiting list of people to contact in case a food box went unclaimed. If anything, she said she hopes the program can return and expand in the future.
“I know from the conversations I’ve had in with participants and those who found out about the program since it started that if we doubled it, we’d still have a waiting list,” Rosemond-Saunders said. “It was that well received from the start, and the people who participated only had good things to say.”
Brittain’s feedback from participants anecdotally and through surveys has confirmed Rosemond-Saunders’ feelings toward the program. Brittain measured attitudes toward food boxes, the boxes’ contents and the educational sessions. She feels that there is a great deal of potential in all of the programs being embraced long term by the community.
“The Blue Ridge Community Center accomplishes so much for the community, so we just want to do our part to aid them in their mission,” Brittain said. “These kinds of partnerships are truly great examples of how the University’s land-grant mission can work to provide practical benefits for a community that could use the help.”