Groceryships Give Working Poor a Chance to Improve Diets

By on Monday, April 13th, 2015

Sam Polk (center), founder of Groceryships, left a lucrative trading career on Wall Street to launch a nonprofit that helps families eat better.

In the last few years public figures and reporters have publicized attempts to eat decently on the amount of money received from a typical SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) allotment, which is about $4.30 per day. The stories vary widely in terms of lessons learned, strategies developed and unexpected hardships endured. Still, thriving or even surviving on food stamps is not a game to the nearly 46 million who depend on SNAP for their daily meals.

Sam Polk didn’t go this route. Instead the former Wall Street hedge fund trader entered the daunting world of public nutrition with a whole new premise — supplement the food budget with both cash and education. His two-year-old nonprofit, Groceryships, provides weekly $40 gift cards at Food 4 Less to struggling parents (mostly moms) for six months. Accompanying the cash are regular classes teaching nutrition, cooking and general healthy living concepts that are realistic and attainable to families who struggle to make ends meet.

The first group gathered in South L.A. every Wednesday night for six months. It was hard going at first–everyone felt awkward and a little suspicious about it all (free gift cards? what’s the catch?)–but by the third meeting as participant Helen Langley put it, “I took a breath and opened up. I don’t have a safe place … we made this a safe place.” At an emotional graduation, the women agreed that improving their families’ diets was a triumph beyond measure, attributable as much to the social connections formed as it was to the extra money.

A Taste for Transformation

For Polk, the experience was profoundly encouraging. As a high schooler, Polk was overweight–he and his brother were called “The Pork Brothers” by classmates. His wife Kirsten, a surgeon-turned-psychologist, had taken Lipitor for 10 years to keep a runaway cholesterol level under control. One night the two of them were watching Forks Over Knives, a documentary about the dramatic health impact of a plant-based diet, and they started to hope. “We began eating differently,” Polk says. The couple bought fruit, vegetables, beans and seeds. They cut out sugar, all desserts, and most meat.

They began mapping out their ideas for an organization that would help struggling families avoid obesity and the diseases associated with it. Groceryships has the scholarship element that gives people a little extra money to experiment with foods they would never risk their modest budgets on before. But the program is more about the social connections formed than the money. In fact, the Groceryships website encourages new groups to form, whether or not they are deemed eligible for grocery gift cards.

Poik recently forged a partnership with LA’s Promise. The organization, which transforms failing public schools and strives to provide students a healthy and successful future, is opening five new groups this month. Homeboy Industries, Father Boyle’s famous enterprise providing work experience and training to LA gang members and inner-city youth, is working on a group of its own. As for the two groups that have graduated so far, the results are deeply encouraging.

A cooking class in session for the second group of Groceryships students. They learn ways to easily integrate fresh produce into daily meals.

“We’ve seen marked improvements in self-esteem and sense of connectedness,” says Polk. “We’ve seen an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption, and in this last group we saw significant weight loss of about 12 pounds per person. Keep in mind that this was not even a goal.”

Life After Graduation

The challenge with training programs is not what happens during class, but what happens afterward. Groceryships’ first group finished officially last summer. Several of them came back to volunteer and mentor new participants. Many continued the friendships forged during class.

What about being able to afford healthy food at the grocery store without the extra $40 a week? Polk says that some plans are underway for offering quick prepared meals at SNAP prices ($2.00 to $2.50 per meal). In the meantime, students have discounted access to Farm Fresh to You produce boxes, as well as healthy frozen foods from Luvo Foods.

Groceryships graduates also get free online memberships to yoga through YogaWorks. As many live in areas where gyms are too expensive or too far away, this is a valuable perk. Polk says that there is now a walking group that meets every Sunday.

The classes continue to evolve and improve as well, says Polk. “We have a “personal goals” section of the weekly meetings, where participants lay out their goals for the week. It’s been very powerful.”

Written by Erika Kotite

Erika Kotite is an editor, writer and owner of Toque.

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