A Brighter Future with Food

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By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

It’s a Tuesday afternoon at Emerson Elementary School in Northwest Houston, and parents are eagerly filing into the cafeteria for free grocery bags stuffed with beets, radishes, plantains, pears, grapefruit and carrots.

They linger to sample a beet and berry smoothie. Later, at home, many will follow a recipe included in their grocery bag, cooking up a healthy, homemade meal. Their children will eat vegetables.

When it comes to healthy eating, “parents want to do what’s right for their children,” says Lisa Helfman, a real estate attorney and co-founder of Brighter Bites, the non-profit that puts the produce into the families’ hands, “but some just don’t know how.” And many can’t afford it.

That’s where Helfman and her co-founder Shreela Sharma, a professor of Epidemiology at the UTHealth School of Public health come in. Through Brighter Bites – which went national last year – they’re turning food waste into a public health opportunity.

Brighter Bites gives low income families across Texas – and the country – 20-25 pounds of fresh, free produce a week donated from local food banks, and it’s changing the way children are eating.

A recent two-year study in Preventive Medicine showed children and parents who received Brighter Bites food were eating significantly more fruits and vegetables, less sugar and twice as many meals cooked from scratch. The program also saves families money they can put towards rent or car payments.

“Food is empowering parents to get their children healthy,” Helfman says. So far, Brighter Bites has distributed over 15 million pounds of produce to more than 30,000 families at schools like Emerson, where 100% of students receive a free or reduced price lunch. “There’s an incredible need in Houston,” says Helfman.

Together, Helfman and Sharma hope to normalize the idea that food is medicine, help drive down childhood obesity – which is rising at an alarming rate – and solve the rampant issue of food waste in the United States. Around 40% of the food produced in the U.S. ends up in landfills; one in five school-aged children is now obese.

 Lisa Helfman and Shreela Sharma

Lisa Helfman and Shreela Sharma

A Broken Food System

The vision for Brighter Bites came to Helfman after she joined a local food co-op and watched her kids’ eating habits drastically improve. When her son spurned a piece of birthday cake at a party, craving his co-op blueberries instead, she took action, teaming up with Sharma.

The idea took shape one night when Helfman sat in the stands at a Houston Texans game. At the time, Sharma was mulling over a recent report from the Institute of Medicine that said nutrition education was not moving the needle on childhood obesity.

“When Lisa approached me with me idea, I thought ‘this is worth a shot’ because it combines access with education,” says Sharma. “We have a broken food system,” she adds. “In the U.S. we’re producing enough food, but not everyone has access to it. Ultimately, my hope is that our evidence-based program drives policy change.”

They designed a 16-week program that would rotate schools every three years. For eight weeks in fall and eight weeks in spring, families take home 50-60 servings of fresh, donated produce (8-12 different items) from local food banks, food that otherwise may have ended up in the dump. Parents volunteer, bagging produce before pick up.

Helfman and Sharma started out small, setting up a pilot program at KIPP Explore in 2012 with their formula: Produce distribution + Nutrition education + A fun food experience. They’ve since expanded to bring fresh produce into more than 100 Texas schools, and thus far, a handful in New York, Washington D.C. and Florida. They also run a summer program.

A Program That Works

Sharma’s in charge of the science, making sure the formula is applied uniformly across all cities and sites. She and her team at UT developed the bilingual nutrition handbooks, and created a framework for all Brighter Bites recipes. Brighter Bites employees regularly develop new dishes and prepare a food sample in the non-profit’s commercial kitchen for parents to try during pick up. The organization trains teachers on healthy eating as well, information they weave into their lesson plans.

A few years after the program kicked off, Sharma spearheaded the two-year study published in Preventive Medicine evaluating the impact of Brighter Bites. She also found students and their families were eating more produce-heavy meals together at home, and more were using grocery labels to guide their purchases.

Sharma’s currently working on a study looking at how Brighter Bites has affected students’ intake of fruit and veggies at school, plus a project exploring how programs like Brighter Bites might be benefitting children’s’ microbiome. It’s the first of its kind.

 Lisa Helfman and Brighter Bites Executive Director Samuel Newman

Lisa Helfman and Brighter Bites Executive Director Samuel Newman

More Than Produce

Sharma knows from her own children that eating veggies doesn’t come overnight. It took her son a full year to warm up to green peppers, she says. But it’s continued exposure while children’s’ taste buds are developing that’s key.

“If you stop offering a certain food, children certainly will not develop a preference for it,” she says. “If you can’t afford to buy spinach, your child is never going to have that opportunity to develop a taste for it. That’s what we’re doing. We’re making sure that
kids have it in front of them, that they have that opportunity.”

For Helfman and Sharma, two families stand out. One child told Sharma his favorite item in the grocery bag the prior week was oranges. He’d never tried one before. Not long after, Helfman says, “he was asking us for more kale smoothie samples.”

A mom who was pre-diabetic lost 30 pounds after starting Brighter Bites, and she no longer needs her insulin. It’s stories like these they hope to replicate.

Recently in D.C., a teacher walked up to Helfman during distribution one day to thank her for the program. “She told me, ‘You’re not just bringing families’ food. You’re bringing them hope, and you’re changing our entire community.”

Joey Romano