Helping the homeless eat like it's home

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  • | 12:00 p.m. December 11, 2001
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by Monica Chamness

Staff Writer

For the thousands of homeless people wandering the streets of Jacksonville every day, it’s hard enough to come by something to eat, much less something that’s actually good for them.

Executives at the I.M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless recognized this disparity and set about rectifying it. Enter Michelle Young, new to the staff and a registered and licensed dietician. As of last month, Young has been acting as the shelter’s nutritionist.

Her position became available because of a $49,854 Community Food and Nutrition Grant from the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The homeless have a lot of health issues that nutrition could prevent,” said Young.

“Often healthy foods are unavailable [to the indigent] due to cost, transportation or knowledge. Often they buy what they can afford and it may not be the best nutritional value. The least expensive things are higher in fat, sugar and salt, but are the most accessible.”

Young’s experience comes from her job with Women, Infants and Children in Pinellas County, coupled with her work at the Jacksonville Head Start program.

She is an FSU graduate and completed her internship under the Pasco County Dietetic Internship.

Nutrition education programs are offered twice a week at the shelter for homeless and low-income individuals. A basic nutrition class, which includes topics such as healthy eating tips, is taught every week. Other classes rotate out each week as well. They encompass subjects such as meal preparations, maternal/child care and diabetes.

The federal grant provides for the implementation of these classes in addition to expenses related to travel, equipment, supplies and salaries for the program.

Last fiscal year witnessed 18,460 visitors to the center with 274,203 meals being served.

That’s a lot of food.

The bulk of donations to the center are canned goods and bread. Fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products and quality meat are rarely given due to the perishability of these goods.

Young and Colleen Farris, director of food service at the Sulzbacher, are striving to change this fact by working with volunteers and kitchen managers to increase awareness of what items are needed.

Embedded in the nutritionist’s job description is educating the community about the nutritional health of the disadvantaged. An advisory board will be created to meet this end. Pamphlets will also be provided to soup kitchens and food banks outlining what they can do to contribute.

“We will approach groups that come here to prepare meals-churches, service organizations and businesses,” said Young.

“There are over 70 that come here every day and provide the main meal.”

By advising these entities to the nutritional needs of their residents, Young hopes to see healthier, more productive citizens.

“People that are more healthy are able to get on their feet faster,” said Farris. “We don’t want to just feed them, we want to provide healthy foods.”

“We hope to broaden the holistic picture that intervention is important,” added Young.

Through a Community Development Block Grant, a teaching kitchen has been established at the center. Farris and Young team up to instruct residents on how to incorporate different fruits into recipes, shop for in-season foods and stretch their grocery money.

They suggested a voucher system in which various charitable groups would send the poor to grocery markets and could receive healthy food at discounted prices. No agreements have been proposed yet.

“The response [to the classes] has been tremendous,” said Farris.

“Once they understand, they want to make more good decisions.”

“I think it [the program] is really going to open eyes to how nutrition can make a difference to the quality of people’s lives,” added Young.