Miami-Dade County

Food desert residents get supermarket shopping tips for healthier, under-$10 meals

At the Winn-Dixie on the border of Opa-locka and Miami Gardens, a throng of shoppers toting bags labeled “Cooking Matters” scribbled briskly on note pads.

Holding up a loaf that proclaimed itself whole wheat bread, the group’s leader, Kristine Perez-Carrion, read the first ingredient aloud: “Unbleached enriched flour.”

The store tour on Tuesday, organized by FLIPANY, short for Florida Introduces Physical Activity and Nutrition to Youth, comes just as first lady Michelle Obama has begun pushing home cooking as part of her Let’s Move! campaign to fight obesity.

For six years, the Fort Lauderdale-based nonprofit has been evangelizing healthy shopping and cooking tips in the so-called food deserts — areas where fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to find — of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. While the Affordable Care Act handed out grants for projects to bring more supermarkets into poor communities, FLIPANY’s leaders have tried to teach people how to cook healthy, affordable meals at home. Schedules for the free classes vary and can be found on the organization’s website. FLIPANY also trains groups to lead classes in their communities.

At the Winn-Dixie, store manager Ron Daniels said, “A lot of the time I see single moms ringing up $100 and $200 worth of groceries at the register with not a single wholesome meal in the purchase, that’s why I support this program.”

Carroll Storr, who cooks for himself since losing his wife to colon cancer; Hattie Carter, who follows a special diet for dialysis patients; and culinary arts students from Miami Job Corps were among the FLIPANY participants following Perez around the food aisles.

“Who’s familiar with My Plate?” she asked, referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guide to healthy eating using the image of a dinner plate with portions from five food groups. After the store tour, the volunteers were challenged to use Winn-Dixie gift cards to create a meal using each food group for a total of $10 or less.

At least 63 percent of FLIPANY participants receive one or more forms of federal food assistance. Perez launched into a rapid-fire dialogue focused on her audience’s pocketbooks and tastes.

“Anyone use whole milk?”

She noted the show of hands.

“Then don’t buy skim milk. You’ll hate it. Start drinking 2 percent milk. When that tastes delicious to you, try 1 percent,” she advised.

In the seafood section: “Don’t overlook the frozen fish. It’s cheaper. The fresh fish tags often say ‘previously frozen’ anyway.”

While the tours stick to the supermarket’s perimeter where the fresh foods are, FLIPANY staff members know that canned foods are staples for shoppers strapped for money and time. Some of the tours challenge shoppers to provision healthy meals in small neighborhood groceries where prices can be three times higher than at the supermarket and almost all the inventory is canned.

“If you’re using canned vegetables, rinse them with water. It removes the extra sodium,” Perez said.

In less than an hour, the group gleaned tips on how foods are stripped of nutrient content and reconstituted, how to cook lean meats so they taste richer and how to extend 100 percent fruit juice with water, rather than paying for the water that’s often added as the first ingredient in many brands.

In the second hour, it was time for the participants to shop for dinner. Storr already knew what he was going to make: “Fish. I grew up on it.”

Carter, with her kidney issues, was unsure: “I only eat certain things.”

Her friend Annie Holmes of Opa-locka tucked a box of honey-glazed cinnamon buns “for the grandkids” in her shopping cart alongside an array of fresh vegetables.

While the older shoppers stuck to what they knew, the younger ones were eager to experiment. Jenné Burnett of Opa-locka dreamed up a breakfast tortilla for herself and her 2-year-old daughter using corn tortillas, salsa as the required vegetable, eggs and a small amount of cheese for protein and strawberries for the fruit.

In 2012, Miami-Dade County embarked on a push to add supermarkets in underserved areas, pointing to a report by Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, that claimed a new market in a census tract could boost food-and-vegetable consumption among African Americans by 32 percent, significantly more than the 11 percent boost for white Americans.

But more recent studies, including a 2014 report published by Health Affairs, said new supermarkets do little to change food consumption.

Asked if they learned or bought anything new during their market tour, several in the Winn-Dixie group said no. But FLIPANY surveys show impressive results overall. A survey based on more than 60 tours and courses offered in 2012 indicated that more than 50 percent of 230 participants were more likely to use labels to find healthier ingredients or better deals after a market tour. The results were even better when the tour was combined with a FLIPANY cooking course — 97 percent of 685 participants said they read labels more often.

Still, only 17 percent said they ate out less after taking a market tour with the group.

Perez wasn’t worried. “We meet them where they are. It takes time.”

After listening to Perez explain how reduced-sugar juices achieve their claim — “They don’t take out the sugar, they just add more water” — Storr picked up a bottle of juice advertising 100 percent natural flavors and read the ingredients: water, corn syrup, 5 percent juice.

“Wow. Knowledge is power,” he said.

This story was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.