A House in Austin teaches parents to bring healthier options to the table

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On Wednesday nights this summer, 10 West Side parents gather to read food labels, try new recipes and cook a new meal for their families. Through the program My FRESH Table, the nonprofit A House In Austin gives families a hands-on opportunity to learn to make healthier and affordable choices when shopping for food for their families.

“What we find is that some of our young families and those who don’t have full literacy or understanding, go to the store and it’s very overwhelming,” co-executive director Lynette Kelly-Bell said. “And what ends up happening is they stick to what they know, and that can be the same three meals or five meals that they’re just consistently preparing without variation.”

During the four-week cooking course, parents prepare a nutritious meal on-site using recipes adapted and created by the organization’s staff, many of whom are parents themselves. The learning doesn’t stop then, as they receive free ingredients to take home so they can make the meal for a second time.

The recipes for spaghetti squash and rutabaga are some of their favorites.

Many of the participating families have a household income below the poverty line and can’t afford to buy food or produce they do not know. With this program, they can learn how to use healthier ingredients and try them without having to take the risk of purchasing something that could go to waste.

“Once we expose them to the different vegetables they can use as opposed to processed foods that they’re used to buying, it opens up a whole new world for them,” Kelly-Bell said.

Teaching parents to make healthier choices also calls for teaching them how to read food labels, help them understand what they mean and whether each ingredient is beneficial to their bodies.

“Education and exposure helps them make better decisions when it comes to purchasing food,” Kelly-Bell said.

She said there have been families who switched to more nutritious ingredients to make their household recipes, like swapping white sugar for brown sugar or using wild rice instead of white rice.

My FRESH Table is one of several free programs to support and empower parents and children, as part of A House in Austin’s mission. The organization also offers early childhood education where young kids develop important skills through play, such as fine and gross motor skills and self-expression. While their children attend this programs, parents can remain on-site to attend parent support programming.

This includes parent chats, a space where parents can share their experiences, “their highs and lows,” and find support. Led by a licensed social worker, this offers a space for parents to recharge and discuss parenting topics with other parents.

Parents and toddlers can also attend the “boppin’ babies” music classes where young children are exposed to musical patterns, drumming and singing.

The upcoming Food Aid Festival, a fundraiser organized by WBEZ Chicago, Harmonica Dunn and Suburban Unity Alliance, will support A House in Austin for their work to increase access to nutritious foods in Austin.

The music festival, that will take place on July 22 and 23, will raise funds to support local organizations that address food insecurity on the West Side. Unity Fridges, Austin Coming Together, Beyond Hunger and Westchester Food Pantry will also benefit.

Donnie Biggins, talent buyer for Harmonica Dunn, a independent music promotional company, said the idea for the festival arose in conversations with Anthony Clark, founder and director of Suburban Unity Alliance.

Clark and Biggins went to high school together, so they thought of organizing a reunion. “Why do a reunion when we can do something more important?” Biggins said.

The result is a festival where musical performers from Austin, Oak Park and the West Side get to show their talents in benefit of local organizations addresing food insecurity. The focus is on food insecurity as it affects a large number of community members in Austin and other West Side communities.

“With inflation, (reduced wages) and (higher) gas prices, it’s harder to provide food for families and people that do not make the income that they need in order to buy groceries right now,” Biggins said.

The Food Aid Festival will be held July 22 at the Kehrein Center for the Arts. R&B artists The O’My’S with Wyatt Waddell will take the stage to perform together. Oak Park activist and songwriter Kara Jackson also will perform.

Vanessa Stokes, interim executive director of the Kehrein Center for the Arts, said they partnered with the festival organizers and WBEZ to amplify the need for food aid in Austin and support local organizations that are addressing this issue.

“We live in a food desert, and through the pandemic it was very obvious that there was food inequity happening in the Austin community,” Stokes said.

Also on July 22, Austin artist FURY will perform with Mary Lane, Mikey Everything, Since9ine6ix and Yomí at the School of Rock Oak Park.

To learn more about the Food Aid Festival and purchase tickets, click here.

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