Eat, Drink and Be Healthy: A Grass-Roots Effort Teaches People to Eat Right

By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Most everyone agrees: Americans are too fat. We eat too much salty, sugary, fatty food. And our diets are making us unhealthy, fostering chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer that exact enormous personal and societal prices.

As for how to go about addressing and even reversing those situations, opinions differ.

Some propose broad government actions aimed at shaping Americans' food habits by enacting laws and levying taxes. Those who favor a soda tax, for instance, hope that making people pay more for soft drinks will encourage them to consume less. Plus, they say revenue could go toward subsidizing production of healthful foods or to support community-based efforts to promote healthful eating.

Others believe in working from the ground up, teaching people, one by one, the value of sound nutrition and how to avail themselves of healthful foods.

Juliette Tahar is among the latter.

Tahar, a former private chef and caterer, runs a nonprofit organization called Healthy Living, aimed at showing the ways in which good food can enrich life, reflect culture and history and even enhance spirituality, even as it contributes to our physical well-being. Her fee-based programs, for which anyone can pay to hear Tahar talk about food and take part in a cooking demonstration, help support the outreach work she does for free at community centers and shelters in the Washington area; a small number of grants cover the rest. (Tahar says she donates her time.)

Having lived in West Africa until she was 16, Tahar grew up in an atmosphere where "food was fresh, abundant and part of life," she says. "Then I came to the States. In the late 1960s in Washington, we experienced our own food desert." The lack of access to the kinds of food she'd grown accustomed to eating "awakened a desire," she says. "Where can I get fresh food?"

In many ways, much of Washington remains a "food desert," a term used to describe areas where access to affordable, nutritious food is limited (usually by a dearth of grocery stores and of transportation options). A report issued in June by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service includes a map of Washington's food deserts. It coincides pretty closely with the areas where Tahar offers her outreach programs.

Tahar disagrees with the notion that unhealthful eating stems solely from lack of money. "With all due respect, it's not an issue of income." Instead, she believes people eat what they have easy access to -- and what they know about. A boy who attended one of her programs, she says, "did not know you could go to Safeway and get an apple." Similarly, she frequently meets "people who are still cooking with canned food. They don't know how to cook with fresh food because they have no access to it."

When working with women at homeless shelters, Tahar tries to help them see "how they can take baby steps toward making healthful choices in their life, even if they have a tiny budget." If there is a kitchen, she picks one resident as an assistant chef, and together they make a meal for the group, using simple recipes and fresh ingredients. One recent meal featured fall lentil soup, quinoa pilaf with mushrooms, steamed kale and butternut squash pie.

As they cook, they discuss what food they're cooking (the value of whole grains, for example) and related concerns. "Some of them have health issues, and they want to better understand which food might best support their recovery," she said.

If no kitchen is available, Tahar whips up a quick snack such as a couscous salad, on her own, and the discussion goes on.

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