Impacting Clients Today & Community Health Long-Term
There are many ways in which Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry is special; its welcoming and respectful atmosphere, terrific volunteers, and abundance of nourishing food choices usually top the list of client comments. The Pantry’s Nutrition Education program is another way in which the Pantry is, according to staff Dietitian, Maria Delis, “truly one of a kind.”
The program began back when the Pantry changed its format to client choice in 2010. Delis was brought in as a consultant to make nutritious food choices. From there the relationship blossomed. The largely volunteer run program now offers clients nutrition demonstrations at all food distributions, blood pressure checks by volunteer nurses, and has even branched out to include Cooking Matters, a six-week class. A recent distribution even offered “Chair Yoga” as part of February’s nutrition education theme, “Fuel Up for Fitness.”
“We feel that the nutrition program should not just be about food, but about wellness,” Delis says. Lots of imagination and community partnerships make the program as rich in variety as the Pantry’s shelves are rich in healthy food. Delis takes particular pride in the nutrition internship program, which now offers nutrition students at Dominican, UIC and Loyola internship opportunities to reach out to low- income populations as they train in their field. Because so few pantries have a dietitian on staff, community placements are almost impossible to find, and students flock to us for this experience.
Interns help plan and execute cooking classes and attend demonstrations to answer questions for clients. They offer shopping tips, pilot recipes, and even help develop nutrition units specific to clients with diabetes and heart disease.
“They are serving a population that often falls through the cracks, underserved on both nutrition and health care. The benefits are reciprocal for clients and students,” Delis says. “Not only do our clients benefit, but interns, medical students, and nurses benefit too. Eventually, this community will be part of their patient load.”
She smiles, “From what I hear from interns, everyone wants this rotation. We are investing in the future.”