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Want to eat well? Get back to the basics

Charalin Simon, of Simon Produce and Baked Goods of Kerkhoven, helps a customer browsing through the Simons' home-grown and freshly harvested vegetables. (Tribune photos by Anne Polta)

Sweet corn, beets, string beans and apples are piled high at the Simon Produce and Baked Goods stand at the Becker Market.

It's home-grown, and harvested so recently that the earth still clings to the freshly dug carrots.

Behind the table, Charalin Simon greets customers, weighs their purchases on an old-fashioned scale and bundles up vegetables, jars of jam and home-baked treats for buyers to take home.

Willmar-area residents don't have to go far to find fresh food. The Simons, who are from Kerkhoven, come to Willmar twice a week -- for the Becker Market on Thursday afternoons and the farmer's market on Saturday mornings. They also sell produce and fresh eggs in Kerkhoven.

"We have vegetables from A to Z," said Charalin Simon.

Produce departments at local grocery stores are stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables year round. Television and the Internet are brimming with advice on how to eat well.

Why, then, is it often so difficult for the average household to break out of the fast-food, convenience-food, eating-on-the-run routine?

Polls and organizations that track American eating habits consistently report the same thing: Although many Americans still prepare their own meals, there's a high reliance in U.S. culture on prepackaged food, convenience food and takeout and restaurant dining -- and the accompanying consequences of larger portions, more calories and less than optimal health.

For many people, it comes down to lack of time and know-how, said Roxanne Erickson, a health educator with Kandiyohi County Public Health.

"People have a lot of time constraints," she said. "People are eating out a lot more."

This is especially the case for current 20-somethings, who are far less likely to have been raised on home cooking, she said. "We grew up with a lot of fast food readily available."

"I think there's just so much pressure. We're trying to do more and more all the time," agreed Kellie Prentice, who heads the cardiac health and rehabilitation program at Rice Memorial Hospital. "Some of the basics have been left behind. We're not teaching our kids then how to cook."

Several local initiatives are under way to try to help reverse this trend.

During the five years Willmar was a site for the Steps to a Healthier US project, organizers introduced a "Farm to School" program that brings Minnesota-grown foods such as apples, squash and wild rice to school cafeterias.

Community gardens are giving people -- especially children -- the opportunity to grow and eat their own vegetables.

A Kandiyohi County food steering committee is currently working to boost the availability of fresh, locally grown food for people of all ages and incomes.

One of its projects is to develop a database of local food producers, Erickson said. A Kandiyohi County Public Health intern has been spending the summer talking to restaurants and caterers to assess whether they use local foods or would like to introduce local foods to their menu.

The committee also is exploring the possibility of a greenhouse to produce fresh vegetables year round.

Encouraging people to change their habits will probably require strategies on several fronts, however. For one thing, there's a perception that fresh food costs more, Erickson said.

While $5 might buy more potato chips than apples, $5 worth of apples "goes a lot further," she said.

For low-income households, access and affordability can especially be a barrier to eating more fresh foods, she said.

This summer, the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program added fresh fruits and vegetables to its voucher system, making it easier for qualified households to obtain these foods. The Becker Market also is working on a project for next year that would allow eligible shoppers to use the food stamp electronic benefit system when they buy fresh food at the market.

Lack of know-how is another barrier, Erickson said. "People don't know how to cook. They get fresh fruit and vegetables and they don't know how to prepare them."

It's often more work to cook from scratch, but "in the long run it is more nutritious," she said.

It can be particularly challenging for people newly diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease to change long-standing eating habits.

Prentice, a nurse, works with heart patients who often are highly motivated but overwhelmed.

"They may have many things they're working on," she said.

To help get them started, the cardiac rehabilitation program offers each participant an education and assessment session with a dietitian. When they complete the six- to eight-week program, they get a heart-healthy cookbook filled with recipes that have all been tested by staff and previous program participants.

"The real world is going to face you when you're done with rehab," Prentice said. "That's what our role is -- to help them enjoy all the things they did but work them into their new lifestyle. We try to overthink everything. We just need to get back to the basics."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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