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With all the issues challenging Robert Berglund and Naseen Hamilton on a Friday morning at the Share Our Selves charity in Costa Mesa, Calif., it seemed unlikely that they'd care much about a 5-pound bag of raw carrots.
They came seeking financial help to pay the weekly rent on the one-bedroom Anaheim motel room they share with their four kids. When it came time to leave, their aging car wouldn't start without a jump, and they had to scrape together coins to keep the gas gauge from hitting empty.
Still, they said they looked forward to cooking up the carrot recipes included in a personalized booklet printed on the spot at the SOS food pantry.
"This will be fun," Berglund said, the bag of carrots tucked in the crook of his arm and a smile on his face. "I can feed a lot of people with this."
While so many things were going wrong, at least the timing was right for Berglund and Hamilton to participate in a nationwide effort directed by two University of Southern California researchers to encourage the poor to eat more fresh produce.
The computer-generated, customized carrot-recipe booklet the couple took home is the cornerstone of the USC project, called "Quick! Help for Meals."
The recipes were tailored to a series of brief questions the couple answered as they waited in the crowded lobby at Share Our Selves. Questions such as whether or not they had children, their culinary skill level, how much time they spend cooking, and what kitchen appliances they had - in their case, a microwave and a stove whose oven and broiler didn't work.
Researchers Susan Evans and Peter Clarke, both in preventive medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine, have traveled food pantries around the country testing the personalized booklets, the product of a computer program developed by USC's Information Sciences Institute.
Based on interviews conducted about a week after their field tests at food pantries, Evans and Clarke have found that the "Quick! Help for Meals" approach results in a 50 percent increase in consumption of fresh produce.
Their goal is to implement the program in up to 6,000 food pantries around the country in an effort to stem the growing dietary-related health problems among low-income people.
"What we want to achieve is to introduce the household, the family, to as many flavors, aromas, textures and appearances in dishes and servings with a commodity like carrots because that's the way of convincing the family that fresh food is appealing," Clarke said. "This food is so vital for disease prevention, and these folks are not getting good medical care. So, they are vulnerable."
At the health clinic run by Share Our Selves, 15 percent of the clients suffer diabetes and hypertension - typically associated with poor nutrition. They account for more than 50 percent of the clinic's 20,000 visits a year and 75 percent of its pharmaceutical and lab referrals.
"It's a major problem," eligibility coordinator Rita Armendariz says of the obesity she sees among clinic clients.
For more than a decade, Evans and Clarke have worked to improve the diets of families who frequent food pantries. Fresh produce often gets left out because of the expense, lack of proper storage and ignorance about how to cook tasty vegetables.
First, through their Wholesalers to the Hungry program, the researchers focused on getting produce to food pantry clientele. They won a "Heroes of Hunger" award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for developing 140 programs around the country that transfer fresh fruits and vegetables to charities from wholesalers and other resources.
In Orange County, Calif., Second Harvest Food Bank benefits from Wholesalers to the Hungry. Second Harvest, the county's largest food bank, has joined food banks across the state in the push to get more fresh produce to clients, says Denise Stupak, Second Harvest's agency-relations manager.
She found that many of the charities Second Harvest serves didn't have storage or refrigeration to accommodate large quantities of fresh food. So the organization introduced a mobile pantry: a truck big enough to carry 5,000 pounds of food, half of it produce, that parks at food pantry sites. People pick what they want right off the truck.
"It's serious, a life with no fruits and vegetables," says Stupak, who earned her bachelor's degree in nutrition. "What we're really talking about is cancer rates and death rates."
The second leg of the USC project encourages more food-pantry clients to accept fresh produce, and use it. Donated food is typically further along in the distribution cycle, Clarke said, which means clients need to use it quickly, before it spoils.
Young families raised on fast food often don't know how to cook it or how to store it. Senior citizens, shaped by the Great Depression, wouldn't throw fresh food away but had limited cooking facilities.
Lauren Cassarello of Santa Ana, Calif., visits the Share Our Selves health clinic monthly to repair damage to her teeth caused by thyroid disease. Before she became ill and lost her job, she enjoyed fresh vegetables all the time. Now, because of the expense, she cooks fresh vegetables only when she gets them from the food pantry.
"If you can get information on healthier foods," she said, "it's always important to keep your mind open to new things."
BAKED CARROTS AND APPLES (KID FRIENDLY)
Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 50 minutes
Can be made ahead? Yes
Can be frozen? Yes
Good for leftovers? Yes
2 cups water
2 cups sliced raw carrots
3 apples, thinly sliced
2 large spoons flour
4 large spoons brown flour
3/4 cup orange juice
1. Put 2 cups of water in a pot and bring to a boil.
2. Add the sliced carrots. Cover pot and turn heat down.
3. Cook for 10 minutes.
4. Drain the cooking water from the carrots.
5. Combine the cooked carrots and apples in a baking dish.
6. Sprinkle the flour and brown sugar over the carrots and apples. This forms a light crust.
7. Pour orange juice over the carrots and apples.
8. Bake for 40 minutes at 350 degrees.
Preparation time: 6 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Can be made ahead? No
Can be frozen? Yes
Good for leftovers? Yes
4 cups carrots, sliced 1 small onion, sliced 2 small spoons vegetable oil parsley
1. Heat the oil in a frying pan.
2. Add the carrots and onions.
3. Cover and turn the heat down.
4. Check to make sure the carrots are not sticking.
5. Cook for 8-10 minutes, or until carrots and onions are tender.
6. Add the parsley and serve.
(c) 2004, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.