Meals in Minutes
UGA’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program teaches busy families how to prepare quick, nutritious meals
“Miss Beffie, can I be your assistant today?” As Beffie Morse unpacks her car, a young woman asks this question and several others emerge from a condominium in north Athens to help carry supplies inside. There are plastic tubs full of bananas, rice, canned vegetables and graham crackers—everything Morse needs for today’s class.
During the next hour, Morse will show these women how to make two recipes—Famous Fried Rice and Amazing Banana Pudding—as part of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) offered by UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences and the Athens-Clarke County Extension Office. Through a series of weekly classes, EFNEP shows clients how to prepare healthy and inexpensive meals in 15 minutes or less.
Above, Beffie Morse prepares to make Famous Fried Rice for a class. Morse is a paraprofessional with EFNEP, a program that encourages participants to eat healthier by choosing more fruits and vegetables and using ingredients like fat free plain yogurt.
Today’s recipes satisfy all the requirements of the MyPlate nutrition guide published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). First lady Michelle Obama would be proud, but she might also be surprised to learn that these recipes—and in fact all of EFNEP’s recipes—are developed with taste as one of several criteria.
“I’m a dietitian so I focus on nutrition and I want everything to be healthy, but the reason why most people choose their food is taste,” says EFNEP Coordinator Gail Hanula.
Hanula’s dissertation provided the basis for the EFNEP curriculum, and her family tested many of the original recipes. Her daughter, then a teenager, provided particularly honest feedback. If a recipe made it through the family, it then went to EFNEP staff members and selected clients for approval before making it into the program.
This rigorous testing has paid off. While Morse layers crushed graham crackers and banana pudding in cups, the women pass around plates of fried rice (it’s not actually fried). Reactions are subdued, but that’s because everyone’s focused on eating.
“This is good,” one young woman finally says.
“Uh huh,” someone replies.
Gail Hanula, dietitian and coordinator of UGA’s EFNEP program, provided the basis for the EFNEP curriculum with her dissertation. Recipes were tested first with her family. Her daughter, then a teenager, provided particularly honest feedback.
UGA’s EFNEP program began 45 years ago with extension agents that went door to door and worked one on one with participants. Now EFNEP works primarily through agencies that serve clients with limited resources—65 to 70 percent receive some kind of food assistance.
Morse’s first class of the day is a group of young women participating in a residential substance abuse program with Advantage Mental Health. Hanula and her colleagues also have worked with groups at vocational schools, GED and ESL programs, food banks and charitable organizations. The program is free for the agency and the clients.
Although EFNEP classes are no longer held in family kitchens, the teaching is still centered around the cooking experience.
“We don’t do PowerPoint,” Hanula says. “It’s more like sitting around somebody’s kitchen table and just talking about food.”
The sessions are led by paraprofessionals who are supervised and trained by county extension agents. And because they are hired from the communities that they serve, they relate well to their clients.
“We get just so many wonderful comments from the participants about how the paraprofessionals truly understand what they’re going through and how hard it is to stretch that food dollar and make ends meet,” Hanula says.
Morse is one of about 40 paraprofessionals armed with an electric skillet and a portable pantry. Many of the recipes have familiar ingredients, but clients also are introduced to items they’ve never used like reduced fat cheese, plain yogurt and nonfat dry milk.
“We make Easy Cheesy Broccoli Soup, and we use the nonfat dry milk, and we have to show participants that we’re using it and mix it in front of them so that they believe that we’ve done it because it’s very, very good,” Hanula says.
The USDA provides funding for EFNEP, so Morse and her colleagues collect data with every group. Clients provide a 24-hour diet recall at the beginning and end of the six-week program, illuminating changes that are made along the way. In fiscal year 2011, 96 percent of clients who completed the EFNEP program improved their daily diets, consuming 0.7 additional cups of more fruits and vegetables and 0.3 cups of calcium-rich foods. “They are more aware about reading labels on foods that they eat,” Morse says. “And food safety—I see a good change in that.”
Later that day Morse meets for the first time with a group of teen mothers. With the nine young women are four children—the youngest nine days old—and a couple of young men. The focus of this meeting is healthy snacks. Before she begins preparing today’s recipes—Amazing Banana Pudding plus Fruity Parfaits—Morse pulls out some visual aids to help her discuss hidden salt, fat and sugar.
She holds up four test tubes of fat plus a really big one full of sugar. This represents a meal at a fast food restaurant, she explains. The four test tubes of fat represent a hamburger (three test tubes) and an order of fries (one test tube). The larger test tube represents the amount of sugar in a 12-ounce soft drink.
“You drink that drink, and eat the fry and a hamburger, and look what you have—this is over 1,500 calories,” she says. “In one meal.”
Morse tailors her presentation to the teen mothers, suggesting while making the banana pudding that they cut the fruit into smaller pieces for younger children. She talks about making healthy choices when eating out, but she’s realistic.
EFNEP participants take home copies of recipes they learn in class. Data gathered from 2011 graduates demonstrates that 96 percent improved their diets by more closely following MyPlate recommendations, including an increase of 0.7 servings of fruits and vegetables and 0.3 cups of milk per day.
“I don’t tell anybody not to eat cake and candy, ’cause I like cake and I like candy,” she says. “We just have to do it in moderation, and we have to make better choices in portion size. If I eat a piece of cake today, I know that I don’t need to eat cake tomorrow and the next day. And I need to get more exercise.”
Teens can be a tough audience, but Morse is not worried.
“Once they realize you care about them, it’s easy then,” she says.
Morse has a unique perspective—she graduated from the EFNEP program before becoming a paraprofessional 32 years ago. She still remembers what it felt like to be a client, so for each group of graduates she organizes a ceremony where friends and family can watch them receive a certificate and an EFNEP cookbook. Morse also invites local officials like former Athens-Clarke County Mayor Heidi Davison, who attended several of these ceremonies during her tenure.
“There are multiple benefits well beyond just the food part,” Davison says. “You can tell by listening to the women talk about their experiences.”
“It’s very touching and very moving to listen to how the class has changed their lives in so many ways.”
Morse remembers one client in particular.
“I gave [the certificate] to a lady, and she told me this was the first thing ever in her life that she had completed,” Morse says. “And she sat there and cried.”
Graduates of the program receive a copy of the EFNEP cookbook, which includes more than 30 recipes plus sample menus. Morse organizes a graduation ceremony for her students, who are encouraged to invite friends and family to attend.
During the last fiscal year UGA’s EFNEP program reached more than 4,300 participants directly and more than 15,000 family members indirectly. This year it’s expanding to cover 25 counties, and program leader’ would like to do even more.
But for now Hanula will settle for knowing that EFNEP is helping to reduce the number of people who find themselves without a dinner plan at 5:00 and choose to swing by the drive-through window at a fast food restaurant on the way home.
“We really want to encourage people to think ahead, to keep some foods on hand for a busy evening so that they can put a meal together quickly without spending a great deal of money,” Hanula says. “And of course all of the recipes are healthy, so that’s a good thing.”
“We are really trying hard to meet the needs of today’s busy families.”