Don’t tell Kelly Frazier it’s impossible to serve balanced, healthful meals in the dining room of the Greenville Rescue Mission which serves more than 130 men, housing families in apartments and providing emergency shelter in extreme cold weather conditions.
Frazier, a Furman University health sciences lecturer, was asked to bring her FUEL concept—Furman University Eating Lean—to the Mission’s kitchen. And donated food, endlessly rotating kitchen volunteers, and picky eaters will not be enough to stop her.
“The trick is to make healthier foods taste great,” she told the kitchen crew at a recent meeting. “For example, try roasting vegetables instead of boiling them.”
Standing before a group of men who would be cooking for about 160 of their peers, she pitched the idea of a new kind of plate—half full of fruits and vegetables, a quarter full of lean protein, and a quarter full of whole grains or potatoes.
Frazier has been teaching the FUEL plate on campus for about six years. When followed consistently, the method can lead to improvements in nutrient intake, body composition, and health outcomes.
Nutrition is rarely on the mind of men who come to the Rescue Mission for help, director Mark Alverson said, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it.
“They are physically depleted, spiritually depleted, mentally and emotionally depleted,” he said. “As they eat better, the mind starts to recover and as the brain heals, they can learn better.”
But his goal of serving more nutritious meals seemed impossible.
“We’re sort of hamstrung because our food comes to us in a donation stream,” Alverson said. “You get what you get.”
Not to be deterred, Alverson sent Doug Bailey, who’s in charge of volunteer engagement for the Mission, to find someone who could help.
“Being a Christian ministry, we have something to say about how these guys are taken care of,” Bailey said.
His call for help eventually landed in Frazier’s world. She jumped at the challenge.
“Every time you see an obstacle that’s making it hard to fit this plate, we need to work on it,” she told the crew at their last meeting. “It’s a really simple way to make a big difference in the lives of others.”
Frazier’s FUEL method started with the idea that people needed a simpler way to eat better food that was not only lower in fats but also higher in fiber and vitamins. A plate-based model takes a lot of the complication out of healthier eating.
To find out if following an eating plan this simple would make a difference, Frazier and Matt Feigenbaum, Ph.D., professor of health sciences, looked at detailed markers such as blood work and muscle, fat, and bone composition. After multiple years of study, the data is clear.
“We know that it can improve health outcomes,” Frazier said.
Now she has a chance to bring the FUEL plate into a world where about 90 percent of the food served comes from donations.
Shelves at the Rescue Mission are piled high with white bread, cakes, and pies donated by grocery stores and bakeries.
“All of that goes to the hungry,” Frazier said. “Which is great, I guess, but not if it’s going to make them sick.”
She was pleasantly surprised by some of the options available in the warehouse where donated food is stored. But whole grain pasta sat unused on a shelf while the white pasta was scooped up.
“If something’s going to be wasted, it should not be fresh vegetables, it should be pie,” she said.
So her lessons with the kitchen crew also include instructions for “shopping” at the warehouse: “If there’s brown rice there and white rice, we need to grab all the brown rice we can.”
Familiarity is another hurdle. Frazier’s warehouse expedition uncovered less common ingredients such as wheat germ and quinoa. She scooped them up and went back to the Rescue Mission and cooked.
The mens’ response: “OK, this isn’t as weird as we thought.”
The average stay at the Rescue Mission is about two months. When Frazier goes back for another lesson, to follow up on a class from a previous month, she might be teaching a whole new group.
“They have to serve 170 people every meal, with constantly rotating staff and recovery food,” she said.
But the challenges aren’t stopping her. She’s looking for every hole in the system and finding a way to patch it.
Need more fresh vegetables and herbs? The mission won a grant from Gardening for Good and planted raised garden beds.
Now, fresh basil, dill, and thyme are swaying in the sunshine just outside the Rescue Mission, along with the leafy green promises of all sorts of vegetables.
Looking over the beds, Frazier wondered aloud about bringing in someone from Furman’s farm to teach the men about composting and protecting the plants from pests.
Want more whole grain bread instead of white? Frazier rode along on a Loaves & Fishes route to see what the food rescue organization picks up and how more healthful food could be directed to the Rescue Mission.
“We’re trying to figure out all the holes here and how we can make this work,” she said.
On Monday, Frazier will meet with Paulette Dunn, Loaves and Fishes executive director, and her Furman student intern. When Dunn heard about Frazier’s pilot work with the Miracle Hill Rescue Mission, she wanted to expand the work to the other 92 facilities that they deliver food to. From her perspective, no one in the community is currently meeting the needs of the “end users.” Loaves and Fishes recovers and delivers food to the hungry, but no one is assisting the shelters who are preparing it or the individuals who use these foods at home. They need basic nutrition education, culinary skills, and tools to help them be resourceful.
“We hope to involve students as we expand,” Frazier said. “We may model our efforts after the FIT Rx program that has been incredibly successful. In that program, I train HSC majors about the foundations of exercise assessment and prescription, and they earn internship credit for implementing those principles as they design exercise programs for faculty and staff to improve health outcomes.”
Administering the FUEL program to all of the Loaves and Fishes facilities will be a great undertaking, but Frazier welcomes the challenge.
“We would need an army of volunteers to be able to help all of these organizations,” she said. “Fortunately, we have over 250 health sciences majors, many of whom are eager to get out in the community to make a difference.”
Learn more about Furman Health Sciences.