Interview with Chef Jen: Nutrition for our neighbors

22/Mar/19 / 20:15

We sat down with Jen Lamplough, our Director of Nutrition Programs and Executive Chef here at the Food Bank. Check out what she has to say about nutrition, food insecurity, and the Food Bank!

What does the Food Bank do to encourage or ensure proper nutrition for our neighbors?

That’s a long answer. The Food Bank is always looking to procure food “across the plate.” If you think of the MyPlate model, it has grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, and dairy – and so the Food Bank is always looking to procure foods that can meet all the components of that plate. We [also] have guidelines called Foods to Encourage, or F2E – we designate F2E items as healthier items, and these are the foods we encourage people to take on our shopping list, that we try to always have available.
As a whole, we try to focus on produce, leaner cuts of meat when we can, whole grains, that sort of thing. We do have things like candy and cakes too; we don’t want to be the food police, because there are occasions when you want or need special treats. So we try to promote our healthy, nutritious food that’s not just calorie dense but nutrient dense too. So many of our agencies are great in this area too, with nutrition policies and education, and offering nutritious foods. We provide this training for agencies called “nudges,” which is supermarket marketing tactics. It’s from a study that Feeding America did with Cornell University about product placement, signage, offering recipes and tastings and cooking demos to “nudge” people into choosing healthier options. We provide recipes on our website, and Feeding America has recipes as well. We also encourage people to get tested recipes from trusted sources like the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, and places like that.
Additionally, we host cooking demos, and have a nutrition section on our website. We use these tactics to reach out to the public, our donors, our volunteers, and to agencies to teach them how to use typical food you get in a food pantry in new and different ways, how to stretch your budget dollars by using the pantry, and how to use your SNAP dollars to really maximize what you have for good, healthy foods.
Ultimately, we want to be a source of healthy, nutritious food.

What programs does the Food Bank have to address nutrition?

With all of our programs – BackPack, Senior Box, federal programs, Healthy Harvest Boxes, the Mobile Pantry Program, the Winnebago Community Market, Senior Grocery Mobiles – we work really hard to ensure that we get as much of the F2E and healthier items as possible, and ensure that kids, seniors, [and] people with chronic disease have access to those healthy foods that they need.
The federal programs have a meal pattern guideline built around having certain amounts of grains, protein and so on by volume or weight. We work really hard to put foods in there that are healthy, and that kids will eat. For a vegetable, we can send salsa with whole grain chips as a snack. Or if we have crackers, we try to do whole grain crackers. We’ll send different kinds of protein, like refried beans, so we’re not always sending meat. We try to do turkey based products instead of pork. We work really hard to stay within those healthful guidelines.
We also do the Whole Body Approach to Wellness class at our food pantries. It’s a 10-week program that teaches intuitive eating, moving your body in a joyful way, stress reduction, and more!. It’s usually done at the pantry an hour before a distribution, so we’re meeting people where they’re at – they’re already coming to the pantry.
Then we have a nutrition education program that we do for kids in the afterschool setting. This program teaches kids how to make healthy snacks themselves. We did research on this topic several years ago, and found that kids are more likely to try a new food if they make it themselves. So now we have five modules based on the five food groups with four lessons in each module. Those are all free on our website.

What’s one thing you wish people knew about nutrition – in general, and in relationship to the work we do at the Food Bank?

In general, people tend to be afraid of healthy foods because they think they’re not going to like them – they think that it’s all steamed broccoli and a bland chicken breast. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can make deliciously healthy food that tastes really good and is within your culture or your taste palate. I think there’s also this sort of natural aversion to healthy food, or this thought that healthy food is really expensive, and that’s not the case either. You can shop on a budget and still eat healthy.
Around what we do, we’re not all canned food. We do have a lot of canned food, and that’s important – we need this food to serve our community, but we also distributed more than 17 million pounds of fresh produce last year, so it’s not all just shelf-stable food. However, there’s nothing wrong with canned produce. Canned beans are a staple in a lot of people’s houses – including mine. There’s nothing wrong with canned fruits and vegetables.

How are nutrition and food insecurity connected?

There’s clear research that shows how food insecurity affects health, like with higher rates of chronic disease (diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and so on). Sometimes people will stretch their dollars; because they have to make the tough choice between medicine and food, they might take less medicine to make it last longer, or if their medicine needs to be taken with food and they don’t have it, the medicine won’t be as effective. That’s one way food insecurity can affect health.
Being food insecure can also cause stress, which raises cortisol (a hormone that affects chronic diseases). What that also does is affect healthcare costs. Sixty-six percent of people have to choose between paying for medicine and food. It’s this snowball of negative effects – people are hospitalized more, they’re readmitted more often, they’re higher-cost users, there’s poorer compliance with medication, and just general higher instances of disease. So that’s not only health implications, but also economic implications of food insecurity.

What do you think people can do to prioritize nutrition on a budget?

Find high fiber, healthy foods (like beans and brown rice) to bulk up more expensive items. If you’re making chili, meat can be a more expensive item – so cut the meat in half and replace the rest with beans. Bulk up your foods with those less expensive items like beans, brown rice, and barley.
Don’t be afraid to buy vegetables. People feel like produce is prohibitive – they think it’s expensive. But don’t be afraid to spend a lot of your budget on produce and bulk up your more expensive items with things that are in season, or that are going to be cheaper. Right now, cabbage and citrus fruit are readily available at an affordable cost. Buy what’s in season.
Learn how to batch cook and freeze food. If you find something that’s on sale, buy a lot of it, batch cook it, and freeze it. Like roasted vegetables – I’ll batch cook roasted vegetables, and freeze them for later.

What are your top three tips for better nutrition?

Add produce – fruits or vegetables – to every meal. If you can, try to especially add vegetables in some way to whatever you’re eating. Here are some easy ways to do that: throw spinach into a smoothie, have a side salad, roast vegetables ahead of time and add them to your scrambled eggs or burrito.
Try to have a balanced plate, where you have grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables, and focus on higher fiber foods because they’ll keep you fuller longer.
Move your body every day. That doesn’t necessarily mean go out and run three miles; that means make sure you stand up at your desk every hour if you can, or go for a 10-minute walk, or put on your favorite music and dance for five minutes. Try and move your body, whatever that means for you.

What are some resources you’d suggest for better nutrition?

I would start with the National Nutrition Month website, from the American Association of Dietetics. You can also visit the Food Bank’s website, American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association, and the USDA’s Choose MyPlate site.

If you could only share one piece of advice about nutrition, what would it be?

Just start small. Small changes make a big difference.
Thank you to the volunteers, donors, and supporters throughout Northern Illinois who help make it possible for the Food Bank to provide healthy and nutritious groceries to neighbors in need every day. What you do matters!
In addition to being working at the Food Bank, Jennifer Lamplough is a cookbook author. Her most recent book is available for purchase and filled with healthy recipes anyone could enjoy.

How You Can Help:


  • Volunteer at one of our Centers in Geneva, Rockford or Park City sorting and packing food
  • Donate to help us solve hunger in your community – every $1 donated helps provide $8 of groceries.



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