Feeding with Love: My journey into the passion of food security!
In the summer of 2012, I moved to Portland, Maine, accompanying my husband to his new job. Living in Virginia for over seventeen years, I was already satisfied with my profession, working as part time consultant clinical dietitian. Little did I know that moving to Maine would become a turning point for the passion in my profession!
After a year of job searching in Maine, I came across an opportunity to become a “Kids Eat Right Campaign Member” (1). In exchange of providing two Kids Eat Right presentations, I received a small grant. The presentations were on the topic "Hungry and Over Weight: How is it Possible?" My research on the subject opened my eyes to the hidden drive of combating food insecurity and promoting health in the community. After one of my presentations to an audience of teenagers in a local mosque, many creative ideas emerged to provide easy access to nutritious foods in our Portland community.
Portland is a unique city in Maine: It is not only a beautiful vacation spot, it also attracts many immigrants from various parts of the world. Migrating from unstable places, these immigrants depend on government aid for survival for many years, including food. Many of them rely on SNAP benefits for a long time and cannot afford to purchase expensive healthy foods for their families.
Eager to contribute positively, I joined a Food Security Sub-Committee under the Portland Mayor's Food Initiative (2). In addition, some job opportunities came into play and I started working as consultant nutrition educator for the Slim Peace organization (3) and Healthy Portland. Both of these jobs required direct nutrition education to new Americans that helped increase my knowledge of their eating habits and limited nutritional resources. Also, I was able to discover that parents were consistently buying more junk foods for their family than fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Furthermore, children were eating healthier and balanced meals in schools than at home. This proved to be an issue, especially in the summertime when children are mostly staying at home.
Observing a large immigrant and refugee attendance during these sessions at local mosques and churches, I decided to seek out a way to utilize these places of worship for coping with food insecurity within their community. Through the Healthy Portland and Mayor's Initiative, I found out about the federal summer meal programs for children in Portland, Maine.
Many of the summer meal open sites were unable to attract kids to eat healthy meals at their locations. In view of the large number of children attending my local mosque’s summer school program, "duksi", the very first thing that came to my mind was to bring the healthy meal program to the mosque. The majority of these children were qualified for this federal meal program but were unable to go to the pre-existing open sites as they were at the mosque during lunch time. With the approval of mosque officials and support of Portland Schools Food Service director, I succeeded in launching the summer lunch program at one of the mosques. The director was very cooperative to change the menu to cater Muslim kids’ needs and even added halal chicken to the menu. Successfully, in summer of 2014, there were about 140 kids who ate healthy lunch every week during Ramadan and about 300 kids after Ramadan. The interest and demand continued for healthy summer meals in summer 2015, resulting in serving up to 340 meals weekly after Ramadan. Throughout the summer meal program, kids really looked forward to eating healthy meals with peers and enjoyed weekly SNAP Ed activities to encourage eating more fruits and vegetables. In fact, even after the summer meal program was over, many children continued to eagerly ask, “When will the meals start again!”. A substitution of balanced and healthy meals including fruits, vegetables and milk instead of serving a sugar filled beverage and chips, was definitely a better option for their health as well as their learning!
Thinking about my contributions to this community as a nutrition professional, makes me happy of the outcomes, even though it was only a small fraction of the community that I helped. My passion for this community keeps growing with the list of other things I can do to serve the food insecure community I live in. One idea I have is to revive community gardens that can feed more than 50 families with fresh produce, and to open up food pantries inside several mosques.
According to Feeding America, Map the Meal Gap 2015 (4), food insecurity exists in every county and congressional district of our nation even in areas where median range of income is above $100,000. With only small efforts from the RDs nationwide, I believe, our younger generation would be more secure in terms of having nutritious food.
It is my desire that RMIG members residing worldwide take the issue of food security very seriously and get involved in their communities and towns they live in. As we are reminded of in the Quran, 2:148:
وَلِكُلٍّ وِجْهَةٌ هُوَ مُوَلِّيهَا فَاسْتَبِقُوا الْخَيْرَاتِ أَيْنَ مَا تَكُونُوا يَأْتِ بِكُمُ اللَّهُ جَمِيعًا إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِي
“To each is a direction (goal) to which he turns: then strive together (as in race) towards all that is good. Wheresoever you are, Allah will bring you together. For Allah has power over everything.”
Looking back when I wasn't so happy moving to Maine, I am now truly grateful to God for bringing me to this beautiful place where I can make best use of my professional expertise while serving the humanity!
Bushra Islam, RDN