PORTLAND - Families surviving on a threadbare budget are learning to stretch their food dollars and strengthen their family ties through the Oregon Family Nutrition Program.
Already, the five-year-old program has helped 1,762 families in Multnomah, Hood River, Wasco, Lane and Malheur counties learn about smart food shopping and food safety.
The program recently started in Marion County and soon will be available in Yamhill and Lincoln counties. It is possible through a partnership between the Oregon State University Extension Service, the Food Stamp Division at the Oregon Department of Human Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Extension educators Pat Aune and Caroline Cannon administer the program through the OSU Extension Service's Multnomah County office.
The course originally was started to help food stamp recipients gain shopping, food preparation and food safety skills to stretch their food budgets. But the information in the classes has proven so valuable that many others who rely on public assistance also have taken the course, said Aune.
Another OSU Extension educator, Diane Smith, teaches many of the courses in food-buying and preparation skills. The Extension office in Portland has trained 30 volunteer food and nutrition advisers to teach courses at community centers.
This has led to an evolving partnership with other local agencies, said Smith. For example, The Salvation Army provides a site for the course and child care while the Extension Service provides materials and the instructors.
"We work with agencies to identify what information the clients need in order to become more self-sufficient," Smith said. Other agencies involved in this partnership are the JOBS Program, Oregon Food Bank, Bottom Line Academy, Albina Ministerial Alliance, Project Network, YMCA Women Resource Center and Transition Projects.
The Oregon Family Nutrition Program in Portland started with five classes geared toward food: shopping and dollar-stretching, preparing snacks instead of buying expensive processed food, how to eat wisely away from home, how to cook with herbs to avoid salt intake, and even how to prepare homemade food gifts.
Those were the lessons that Virginia Wilson of Portland found the most useful. The 69-year-old relies on food stamps to supplement her food budget. And because of increasing health problems, she wanted to reduce her fat and salt intake.
An announcement she saw at the Oregon Food Bank about the Oregon Family Nutrition Program is helping her achieve both of these goals, and giving her a bonus.
"I learned to look for (the nutrition information) on the (food) labels," Wilson said. She also learned to enjoy and prepare healthful foods such as jicama, a turnip-like root vegetable, and cubed tofu and bean dishes that serve as cheap alternatives to meat protein.
"I feel a lot better eating this way," Wilson said. "And I don't go through my food stamp allotment the way I did."
At the request of participants, the program soon expanded beyond food to include other life-skills classes, said Diane Smith.
"Food was the crux of the information, but through that we were also teaching parenting and child development, " she said. Other skills taught through the course include:
"If you have this extra money, we ask 'What will you do with it?'" Smith said. "Some splurge on pizza once a month; others put it toward energy expenses."
For many of those who participate in the program, it is the first time they are hearing practical, usable life skills information.
"They are aware of this kind of child and life management, but they have never put it into practice," Smith said.
Pamela Jiminez said she already is seeing the benefits of the course. She and her 13-year-old son both are learning how to make wiser purchases when they shop and to use calculators to see whether something advertised as a bargain really is.
"It is an excellent program," she said. "I'm using it all the time now."
Others interested in the nutrition program either as participants or volunteers may contact their local county extension office, listed in the blue pages of the telephone book.
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Diane Smith, 503-283-0493, x218