Fulton County pushes nutrition to front burner

A small group of Vine City residents, cramped into the entrance hall of the Neighborhood Union Health Center on Tuesday, let out a collective groan when Yafah Asiel announced she was adding “something called tofu” to the veggie stir fry recipe she was demonstrating.

That's nothing compared to the silently stunned reaction she received when she said the collard greens had no ham hocks, smoked turkey necks or any meat flavoring, and were only cooked for a maximum of 40 minutes.

“Don’t use those green peppers,” she said. “They’re not ready yet; if you left them on the vine, they’d turn a nice red or yellow, and those are better.”

“Yeah, but they’re expensive!” Valerie Brown, 35, said. She’s a single mom stretching a Wendy’s paycheck to feed five children.

Cooking healthy, and in some cases without meat, is part of Asiel’s modus operandi with this group of neighbors -- 98 percent of whom are African-American -- with approximately 40 percent living below the poverty level, according to 2008 data from the Georgia Department of Human Resources.

“Foods like fried chicken, Kool-Aid and biscuits made from old bacon grease kept in a can on top of the refrigerator were given to us because that’s what our mothers and grandmothers ate,” Asiel, owner of Atlanta’s two Soul Vegetarian restaurants, said during a break in the demo. “But we didn’t know it would cause as much harm as it has. The most important message I advocate is to tame your taste buds and walk past candy and sodas because most people are addicted to fat, sugar and salt. That’s what our palates got used to, and we craved it.”

While some of the ingredients in Asiel’s recipes -- like black sesame seeds and agave nectar -- are from the high-end section of most grocery stores, she and others from Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness’s REACH for Wellness disease prevention coalition say healthy cooking and lifestyle choices are realistic, even on virtually no income.

In October of this year, for example, changes made to the Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid in 2005 were reflected in the Georgia Department of Community Health's Women, Infants and Children Program. For the first time in 30 years, WIC has begun paying for fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grain items.

Brown, the mother of five, said she hasn’t yet seen how the new WIC provisions work, but she's eager to learn how to incorporate them into her shopping and to adopt the practices presented by Asiel. Plus she plans to use some of the recipes Fulton County Public Health nutritionist Jamel Drake also shared during the class.

“I will make it my business to do this,” she said, “for my kids’ sake.”