JuJu Harris knows what it’s like to be a WIC mother struggling to feed a family on a limited income, and this spring she’s producing a cookbook inspired by others in the same situation. Ten years ago, Harris, now the Culinary Educator and SNAP Outreach Coordinator for Washington, D.C.-based Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, had six children under her roof—her two young sons, three stepchildren, and a nephew—with only her husband’s limited paycheck to sustain them. But Harris, a one-time Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, was determined to make the most of her WIC staples: generally beans, eggs, cheese, and oatmeal.
“I’m not really an oatmeal eater,” says Harris, “but I said to myself, ‘How can I use this resource to feed my family?’” Rather than just cook it up for breakfast, she made oatmeal bread and healthy oatmeal snacks and cookies. “I knew it was possible to create healthy food” based around the WIC provisions, she says.
Fast forward a decade: Harris now travels with Arcadia’s Mobile Market to neighborhoods in and around D.C., giving cooking demonstrations and explaining to customers how to choose the best produce—often even explaining what that produce is, particularly to the many teen mothers she meets. They tend to reach for the familiar: carrots, apples, lettuce, ignoring the bountiful piles of turnips, Swiss chard, kale, and squashes.
“Arcadia’s mission is affordability and accessibility,” says Harris, “but if you bring food to someone’s front door—even at a good price—and they don’t know what it is, they’re not going to buy or eat it.” That’s true for many of the Mobile Market’s customers, who aren’t necessarily all WIC recipients, but who struggle, largely, to make ends meet. Many of them are hoping to lower their blood pressure, cholesterol, or weight through dietary improvements, and Harris encourages them by pointing out that even one change per week will have an impact on their health, suggesting nutritious substitutions they can easily incorporate into their meal plans.
“Culinary education is crucial to changing people’s eating habits,” says Harris, noting that she is not a nutritionist.
The Arcadia Mobile Market Seasonal Cookbook evolved from an idea Harris had, a simple compilation of recipes on cardstock with some clip art as illustration. But then Pamela Hess came onboard Arcadia as executive director, fresh from a stint as editor of Flavor, and, says Harris, “ran with it.” Photographer and sustainable farmer Molly Peterson volunteered to take photographs of the food, and Bon Appétit Management Company donated US$5,000.00, enough to cover a first print run, a bound title on quality paper. The cookbook will be given, free, to the Mobile Market’s SNAP and WIC customers during the 2014 season, and offered for sale elsewhere. It’s got a clean, glossy look and will hold its own alongside Ina Gartner’s and Martha Stewart’s offerings, with simple but flavorful recipes that include apple and squash soup and beet greens with white beans and bacon. Others are among Harris’s favorites: Yumbo Turkey “Gumbo” and Pork and Lemongrass Sausage. The recipes aren’t complicated, since one of the goals of the project is to “show that it’s possible to make healthy, nutritious meals easily and inexpensively, and without taking a lot of time,” she says.
Harris is planning to put out a Spanish translation of the cookbook, for the significant Spanish-speaking customer base at area farmers’ markets. She’s also turning her attention to nutrition issues faced by seniors, many of whom don’t know about available commodities programs, are too proud to take a handout, or face challenges such as an inability to chew food.
“The whole issue of food is so big,” says Harris. “The best thing I can do is cook and talk to people about food. I must have been an Italian woman in another life. ‘Eat! Eat!’”