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Meet the Organization Teaching Communities to Take Pride with Every Bite

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“Representation really does matter when it comes to food, because if you never see your food highlighted as something great, you don’t have that same pride, ” explains Ashley Carter, co-founder of EatWell Exchange. EatWell Exchange is a nonprofit organization whose approach to nutritional education includes a focus on culture. The team’s efforts include working with local gardens and partnerships to provide access to fresh food in low socioeconomic communities, advocating for policy change, and educating communities on the benefits of ingredients they use in everyday life.  Learn more about EatWell Exchange from our interview with its founder, Ashley Carter RD/LDN.

Tell us more about EatWell Exchange?

EatWell Exchange is a 501(c)3 nonprofit based out of Miami, Florida and Raleigh, North Carolina. It was founded by 3 girlfriends while working in the WIC program’s pediatric and maternal nutrition field. 

We created EatWell Exchange because we wanted to help prevent negative health outcomes in lower socioeconomic communities. We’re registered dietitians, so we sought to provide nutrition education, but soon realized nutrition alone would not solve the problem of negative health issues and food insecurity. We began giving gardening classes to teach families how to grow their own foods. Then we started cooking demonstrations and a culinary academy to show how it’s possible to cook nutritious meals that still taste good! We also advocated for improvements in food policy by joining the USDA dietary guideline committee and presenting for the 2020 guidelines.

What is a food desert?

Can you drive to your grocery store in 10 minutes? Do you have transportation to get there? Will your store have a produce section with lots of vibrant options? Most of these answers would be “No” from someone living in a food desert. 

Food deserts(1) are areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food, typically because a grocery store is too far away. Residents shop at a corner store, market or bodega for groceries, and fresh fruits and vegetables are usually limited, not of good quality or expensive. Food deserts are more common than you think with about 23.5 million people living in them, according to the USDA. 

You probably drive past them daily and may not notice unless you live there. These communities have to commute just to get quality produce. Healthy eating in a food desert is difficult if you have to take a bus or carpool with a neighbor if you don’t have reliable transportation, especially when you have smaller children. These areas are 2.5 times more likely(2) to be exposed to fast food restaurants, and it may feel easier to go to what’s closer, which may have less nutritional options. Living in a food desert is a huge barrier to healthy eating, especially since it typically occurs in lower socioeconomic communities.

What has been the impact of EatWell Exchange in the Community?

Two directors run EatWell Exchange, and within 4 years, we have taught over 8,109 people ranging from elementary school to the aging population! We have initiated 2 community gardens (including one in Grand Goave, Haiti) and have now started a virtual gardening program! With 70% of participants saying they never gardened before starting our programs.

We have partnered with over 120 organizations, communities and schools. Our first culinary academy consisted of 150 student-athletes; we partnered with a chef to teach them how to cook their own foods and use herbs to season their foods. They started off only willing to eat chicken wings, and by the end, they were eating brussels sprouts, jackfruit and chayote squash and making pesto sauce and black bean burgers from scratch! 

Since the pandemic, we transitioned to virtual cooking demonstrations and recently did a smaller summer culinary academy.

What do you wish parents knew more about?

Teach your children more about foods unique to your family. Give them a sense of pride in their foods and remind them it’s okay for classmates to eat different foods than them. Different does not always mean that it’s better than what you’re eating. When’s a child is the minority at their school, they may feel forced to assimilate to what other kids are eating or doing. Meet your child halfway and allow them to enjoy another culture but still teach the significance and the stories of the food the family eats. Have that conversation and help them understand what they feel about their lunch. Explain the benefits of the foods the family enjoys, even if you have to learn the benefits yourself. If your child is a part of the majority demographic of the school, teach them that what they eat is not the standard, everyone has their own foods. Teach them to ask questions respectfully and in a manner that’s appropriate. It’s always great to learn about different foods and appreciate the cultures around us!

Source:

  1. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences.” United States Department of Agriculture, 2009. Web Accessed February 23, 2015.
  2. Yeh, Ming-Chen and David L. Katz. “Food, Nutrition, and the Health of Urban Populations.” In Cities and the Health of the Public, 2006. Web Accessed May 8, 2015

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