I don’t think I have ever had a summer go by so fast. One day it was final exams, then the frenzied preparation for the doctoral qualifying exams (I passed!!), then leaving the next day for Taiwan to attend my father’s wedding banquet. The rest of the summer was a blur: my field experience, my yearly jaunt up to the U.P. to visit family, untangling my academic life, among other things. And now classes have started again.
But first, let me tell you about my field experience. I was lucky to be offered a position with Head Start in Michigan to re-design their menus for four counties in Western Michigan. Head Start is a program that was developed to provide economically disadvantaged children with education, health, and other services. My job was to take the current 4-week meal cycle (that is, the menu repeats itself every 4 weeks) and turn it into a 2-week meal cycle that would follow USDA guidelines on calorie requirements as well as specific nutrients (iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and calcium) the children should receive each day.
This was a lot harder to do than I thought. I had restrictions that severely limited my ability to provide certain nutrients without resorting to heavily fortified foods such as cereals. My restrictions included: no cooking allowed, microwaving is only acceptable to warm non-meat dishes and melt cheese, no nuts of any kind, a very limited budget ($125/week after reimbursement to feed 328 meals/week), making sure that there was minimal prep time (so that the personnel wouldn’t spend time away from the children for too long), not being able to buy in bulk, and anticipating any food phobias or preconceived dislikes.
The whole experience was enlightening—it allowed me to learn how to design menus and work within constraints. I gained valuable experience in dealing with food policy as it pertains to government-funded programs and I unfortunately learned how hard it is to feed “healthy” food to a large group of people on a limited budget. On a personal level I felt like I was betraying my own food values by feeding canned, packaged, and processed foods. The truth is that while packaged goods are not necessarily cheaper than whole foods, it is a lot less time-consuming to open up a can of beans or microwave some frozen vegetables. On the other hand, I’m happy that I was able to improve on the old menu and provide them with a meal in as healthy of a way as I could. My hope is that food policy moves in such as way that fruits and vegetables are subsidized to an extent where they are cheaper than their processed counterparts and would be the more economic way to go.
One can only hope!