UWM students help food pantry patrons eat healthier

Two students stand at a table talking with a patron.

Like many patrons of the Riverwest Food Pantry, recent retiree Margaret Barnes would like to eat more vegetables but sometimes has trouble coming up with ideas for cooking with fresh produce.

So the pantry’s executive director, Vincent Noth, called in the “fresh food cavalry”: members of UWM’s Nutritional Sciences Club and faculty adviser Susie Kundrat.

Two people stand at a counter cutting apples.
Susie Kundrat, a clinical associate professor in the College of Health Sciences, and student Michael Arts, a junior in the nutritional sciences program, prepare a summer salad with apples for June’s food demonstration at the Riverwest Food Pantry. (UWM Photo/Laura Otto)

Ten members of the club spent one weekend a month, April to June, planning dishes and or snack recipes that incorporated the particular fruits or vegetables that become available during the growing season.

“We developed recipes a day in advance based on what the pantry received and what could easily be made,” said Kundrat, a clinical associate professor in the College of Health Sciences. “We used anything that came in fresh.”

The students serve their menu ideas with a dash of dietary education.

“In April, the pantry had spinach, summer squash and broccoli in stock, so we decided our (educational) focus would be on potassium,” said Laura Danner, a senior in the Department of Nutritional Sciences.

The students worked with a pantry volunteer who was French and settled on preparing cheese crepes with ham and those high-potassium vegetables.

The students gave out more than 120 samples and recipes that Saturday and an equal share of nutritional knowledge.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plate graphic

A poster next to the club’s table displayed the “plate” graphic, designed in 2011 by the U.S. government to replace the outdated “food pyramid.” The graphic’s purpose is to show people what amounts of the various kinds of foods they should be eating to stay healthy.

But understanding diet isn’t that simple, as Danner found out at April’s pantry demonstration, where a popular question was, “What is potassium, anyway?”

“It was awesome to answer people’s questions,” she said. “One thing they learned was that they didn’t have to sacrifice taste for nutrition.”

In May, the students prepared an easy black bean dish that included fresh cilantro so they could promote dietary fiber.

The draw for Courtney Bedford, another senior in nutritional sciences, is “the opportunity to take what we’ve learned in class out into the community where it can impact lives.”

One-third of the 12,000 people the pantry serves each year suffer from illnesses related to poor diet, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. So a few years ago, pantry organizers made some changes, Noth said.

“Cooking and eating together has become more important,” he said. “Now we have an environment that encourages people to gather and talk more, and to try new types of food.”

Another change was allowing people to shop for themselves rather than just handing them a box of food, he said. The students’ food preparation demonstrations support both.

Jean De Vita, a registered nutritionist who is a board member at the pantry, was instrumental in getting the UWM students involved. Like Noth, De Vita views healthy food as an avenue for transforming a community.

“A lot of people have no one to eat a meal with,” she said. “So, when they do, the sharing goes beyond what’s on the table.”

Retiree Barnes, for her part, thought the black bean dish was tasty and took the recipe with her. “I have most of these ingredients at home, but I never would have thought to put them together to make this.”

Students involved:

  • Lisa Hren
  • Kelly Braun
  • Michael Arts
  • Julia Alba
  • Courtney Chramowicz
  • Laura Danner
  • Courtney Bedford
  • Cassie Ewig
  • Scott Reilly
  • Alyssa Cabreza

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