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Advice For Eating Well On A Tight Budget, From A Mom Who's Been There

Courtesy of Molly M. Peterson
JuJu Harris is the author of The Arcadia Mobile Market Seasonal Cookbook. A former recipient of government food assistance, she now teaches healthy eating skills to low-income families in Washington, D.C.

JuJu Harris didn't set out to write a cookbook, but then again, she didn't set out to accept public assistance to feed her son, either. Harris always wanted to work with nature.

"My dream job was, I was going to grow up and be a national park ranger," she says. It didn't quite work out that way. She drifted from job to job in Oakland, Calif., where she was born. At 32, she joined the Peace Corps, traveling to Paraguay to help local farmers improve their crops.

While she was supposed to be helping the men — the ones who held the farming jobs and the money — she found herself drawn to the women and children. She encouraged the families to put their money into both their agricultural businesses and their children.

"I learned the importance of nutrition for women and how it impacts her family," Harris says. When the women improved their diets, they had "more mental energy" to deal with their children, too, she says.

You can bring the food to people's doorstep and make it affordable. But if they don't know how to cook what's available, in the end, you haven't changed anything.

Years later, back in the states, Harris found herself in a similar situation — with small children, postpartum depression and little money. She knew she needed to take better care of herself, so she began experimenting with a garden, baking bread, doing whatever she could to supplement the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food program staples she was receiving. She taught herself to cook with kale, collards, cabbage and other inexpensive and nutritionally dense produce. Neighbors came over. She taught them how to cook, too.

Although she has not yet reached her dream of becoming a park ranger, Harris gets to spend plenty of time outdoors these days.

She's now teaching low-income families how to choose and cook healthy produce. She's a culinary educator and SNAP outreach coordinator with the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit group dedicated to creating a more equitable local food system in the Washington, D.C., area.

She drives the center's Mobile Market bus — a kind of farmers market on wheels — into some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

"Working at the Mobile Market, I talk to a lot of moms, and many of them tell me, 'I don't know how to cook.' A lot of them are teen mothers. They pick up vegetables and say, 'I don't know what this is. Is it good? Is it hard to cook?' " Harris says. So she talks up the squash and the Swiss chard, offering tips on how to store and cook them.

"You can bring the food to people's doorstep and make it affordable. But if they don't know how to cook what's available, in the end, you haven't changed anything," she says.

Cooking skills are just one barrier to healthy eating. A recent survey by the nonprofit Share Our Strength shows that 85 percent of low-income families say eating healthy is important, but only 53 percent say they cook healthy dinners most weeknights. A majority of the 1,500 respondents said cost and time to plan, shop and cook are the biggest barriers to improving their nutrition.

/ Courtesy of Molly M. Peterson
Courtesy of Molly M. Peterson
Baked oatmeal with blueberries, one of the recipes featured in The Arcadia Mobile Market Seasonal Cookbook. "It's possible to eat healthy on a budget," Harris says. "Not easy, but possible."

After having dozens of these kinds of conversations a day, Harris decided to put together a shopping guide and recipe book she could hand out to these moms.

"Nothing fancy," she says, "just a little something on some nice cardstock."

She told a couple of her Arcadia colleagues about the idea, and they helped her take it a step further. With the help of Arcadia volunteers and some major grant money, Harris published a coffee table-worthy cookbook. It features saturated color photographs and simple recipes combining food assistance staples like milk, eggs and beans with seasonal produce — dishes like Garlic-Cilantro Fish Marinade and Beet Greens With White Beans And Bacon. It also includes tips for setting up a pantry, and a seasonal guide to everything from apples to turnips.

Shoppers on food assistance who frequent the Mobile Market can now get free copies of the cookbook. The Arcadia Mobile Market Seasonal Cookbook is also available to the general public for $20 a copy. (You can order it here.)

Harris wants to get the word out before June, when the WIC program begins handing out farmers markets checks, which recipients can use to purchase items from the Arcadia bus and other farmers markets. That's when young moms and others on limited budgets who want to improve their health really come out, Harris says. But many are afraid to try new foods for fear of wasting money, she says, so she gives them guidance, suggesting small changes, like one new meal a week.

Harris has an easy manner with these moms because she gets it. She's been where many of the people who come to the Mobile Market are now, says Pamela Hess, Arcadia's executive director and the editor — as well as all-around-wrangler — of the cookbook.

"JuJu is one part fairy godmother, one part good witch. Her garden is incredible — great tangles of flowers and honeybees and roses and vegetables climbing trellises, and always another bed being laid. Her food bears the same stamp of wild and whimsy and fundamental integrity," Hess says.

"I think some of these programs — people are well-meaning, but they've never lived the life. I was on WIC till my kid was 5, and one year my husband broke his leg. I've worked at a food bank, I've been on food stamps," Harris says. She also helped raise four stepchildren and a nephew, and later had another child.

She says she's just doing her part. "The problem of food insecurity is so big, I just do what I can do. And I can cook." She hopes the Arcadia cookbook will show that "it's possible to eat healthy on a budget. Not easy, but possible."

Garlicky Kale Salad

From The Arcadia Mobile Market Seasonal Cookbook

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 inches fresh ginger, peeled (ginger is easily peeled with the side of a metal spoon)

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup olive oil

1 bunch kale, washed, de-ribbbed, and leaves chopped

1 carrot, grated

1 cup red cabbage, thinly sliced

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1 cup garbanzo beans

In a blender, add the garlic, lemon juice, soy sauce, ginger and black pepper, and puree. Using the lid opening, slowly add olive oil with the motor running on low to thicken the dressing.

In a large bowl, add kale, carrots, cabbage, cranberries and garbanzo beans. Pour dressing into the bowl and toss to coat. Mix thoroughly and let salad sit for at least 20 minutes.

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Corrected: March 17, 2014 at 6:00 PM HST
Harris received Women, Infants and Children food assistance only for herself and her firstborn son.
April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to The Salt, NPR's Food Blog.
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