There was a time when Anita Williams worked as the gatekeeper for Spokane Valley’s most visible social service agency, guiding residents to resources that provide support and encouragement.
These days, Williams is still in the business of helping people, only her most recent duties involve a slightly different menu.
As an educator with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education, or “Food $ense,” program through the Washington State University extension office in Spokane Valley, Williams begins every other work week by shopping for healthy, cost-effective food that will be used in cooking demonstrations at a variety of venues across Spokane County. True to the program’s budget savvy creed, Williams is able to buy groceries for two weeks – or 24 classes – at the bargain price of $65.
Williams puts together the recipes and meal plans for each instructional segment, making sure to feature plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Processed foods as well as items high in sodium, fat and sugar don’t make the list.
“I get the opportunity to get out in the community and talk about the benefits of healthy food that people can afford,” Williams said. “Once they see the difference, they are ready to make a change and starting eating healthier.”
Williams worked part-time for the Food $ense program for five years while employed at Spokane Valley Community Center – now Spokane Valley Partners – as the front-desk secretary. Overall, Williams was part of the staff at SVP for a decade, serving as a valuable resource guide and listening ear for low-income residents seeking reinforcement in areas like housing, employment and nutrition.
“I was there to ensure them they could get help and to not give up,” Williams said.
While at SVP, Williams kept constantly updated on the regional social service directory, staying in tune with a network that supplements programs at the center like the food bank, clothing bank and emergency assistance. Ken Briggs, SVP executive director, said Williams was a valuable employee “who always had nice words for everyone.”
“Anita is a consistently positive person,” Briggs said. “In order to work at the front desk here, you have to assign priority, get the person to the right resources and let people know you care – and Anita did all that and more. She’s someone who always saw the bright side of things.”
Williams first learned about the positive impact of a healthy food approach when she attended a Head Start cooking class after the birth of her oldest daughter some 30 years ago. These days, she teaches young mothers about the ripple effect of smart nutrition for them and their children.
“Some people don’t realize that you can eat healthy and save money,” she said. “Instead of buying processed foods like macaroni and cheese or settling on fast food, you can take better care of yourself and your family by following some simple steps.”
Those steps include basic practices like using a shopping list that prioritizes healthy categories like whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy. Williams said the outline serves as a helpful reminder for shoppers who once filled up their grocery carts with random products or unnecessary items that might look appealing on a store shelf.
“Pre-fabricated grocery lists make sure you don’t get what you don’t need,” Williams said.
Other insight includes eating before you go to the grocery store to avoid impulse purchases and looking for generic or store brands that provide the same nutrition as more expensive name brands.
On the cooking side of things, Williams emphasizes the advantages of olive, corn and vegetable oils over coconut, palm and palm kernel oils high in saturated fat.
In her classes, Williams also talks about the important of reading product labels, paying particular attention to details like serving size and the amount of fat, sodium, carbohydrates and sugar as well as positives like vitamins and minerals. Each week, Williams cooks up specialty dishes like homemade mac and cheese, which incorporates fresh ingredients like butter, flour, milk and grated cheese with cooked noodles. Other favorites include a healthy trail mix, hand-made ice cream and a variety of creative, delicious salads.
During a typical week, Williams makes the rounds at a variety of venues, including the Life Services Maternity Home and St. Margaret’s that help young mothers and expectant women, local schools and community center that feature the Early Childhood Education and Assistance (ECEAP) program and the New Horizons Counseling Service. On the second Friday of each month, Williams drops by a free food distribution at Millwood Presbyterian Church. As residents depart with boxes of food from the Second Harvest Mobile Food Bank, Williams talks to them about the benefits of healthy and economical shopping, eating and cooking.
Ed Adams, county director of the WSU extension program, said Williams has brought an impressive level of insight and energy since starting with Food $ense last October.
“She’s been a wonderful addition to our program,” he said. “Anita brings knowledge, community connections and an ability to teach. She’s able to meet people where they are and teach them where they can go.”
Want to find out more?
To learn more about the Food $ense program or other offerings through the Washington State University, Spokane County extension office, call 477-2170 or visit www.spokane-county.wsu.edu. To learn about the Early Childhood Assistance Program, call the Spokane Valley office at 924-1830 or visit www.ehsnrc.org.