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Flint fights lead poisoning with farmers markets and cooking classes

After a public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, triggered by high levels of lead in the drinking water, a number of programs are working to encourage good nutrition for children in order to prevent recurring effects of the neurotoxin on growing bodies. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been five years since the Flint water crisis first rose to national attention.

    While it's not over yet, it has given rise to initiatives that encourage good nutrition to combat lead exposure and to improve overall health.

    We sent John Yang to Michigan to take a look.

  • John Yang:

    A professional chef leads a cooking class for kids in a kitchen at the farmers market in Flint, Michigan.

    They're not just learning how to make pot pies, tacos and baked cheese sticks. They're learning healthy eating with foods that doctors say help limit the amount of lead their growing bodies absorb, milk, dried fruits and green leafy vegetables.

    It's called Flint Kids Cook, and it's one of a number of programs that started or expanded after the city's public health crisis, which was triggered by high levels of lead in the drinking water.

    Pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, who was among the first to sound the alarm about lead in the water, explains that the metal is stored in bones and can reenter the circulatory system.

  • Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    In periods of, for example, poor nutrition in the future or stress or pregnancy, it can come back out of your bones into your bloodstream and cause that neurotoxicity all over again.

  • John Yang:

    But research, she says, shows that certain nutrients decrease lead absorption: iron, found in lean meat, spinach and beans, vitamin C in tomatoes, citrus fruit and peppers, and calcium in milk, cheese and yogurt.

  • Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha:

    That's why nutrition is like a forever medicine. Children need to always have great nutrition to limit the ongoing kind of potential exposure from lead release.

  • John Yang:

    The six-week Flint Kids Cook course is an outgrowth of the nutrition prescription program at the city's two big pediatric clinics, including one run by Hurley Medical Center in the same building as the farmers' market.

    Every child who comes here for an office visit gets a food prescription: a voucher for $15 worth of fruits or vegetables. And because the clinic is right here at the farmers market, that prescription can be filled right away.

    The 3-year-old program of one-time vouchers given at every office visit is among the first of its kind geared toward children. Michigan State University's Amy Saxe-Custack had the idea of adding cooking classes as a way to introduce kids to more kinds of produce.

  • Amy Saxe-Custack:

    Virtually everyone told us that the kids were choosing fruits, because they weren't familiar with vegetables, and wouldn't it be nice if we could find a way to get them to sort of accept and eat vegetables more often?

  • John Yang:

    Nikki Bormann works at Steady Eddy's Veggies in the market and has seen the effects.

  • Nikki Bormann:

    There's a lot of kids that come up. Their parents will bring them in and, like, actually let them pick out fruits and veggies for themselves.

    So that's pretty cool, instead of parents coming in like, well, maybe my kid will eat this, or maybe my kid will eat that, we will try this today.

  • John Yang:

    Food stamp recipients can also get a nutrition boost with Double Up Food Bucks. A national nonprofit called the Fair Food Network operates the program in more than 25 states. For every dollar spent on produce or milk products, participants get another dollar to spend on more fruits, vegetables or milk.

    Shirley Triplett used her benefits at the farmers market.

    What did you buy today?

  • Shirley Triplett:

    I bought broccoli and apples so far.

  • John Yang:

    And you use Double Up Bucks with this?

  • Shirley Triplett:

    Yes, I do. I love that program.

  • John Yang:

    Merchants like it, too.

    Marvin Kattola is co-owner of Landmark Food Center.

  • Marvin Kattola:

    I keep encouraging my staff to encourage and teach the customers about it. It's good for the customers. It's good for the business.

  • John Yang:

    Double Up had already been in Flint since 2009, when the water crisis hit.

    Oran Hesterman is founder and CEO of Fair Food Network.

  • Oran Hesterman:

    We went to work and really expanded the program from one location to now about a dozen locations throughout the city.

  • John Yang:

    In 2015, 9 percent of the city's food stamp recipients used Double Up. Now 60 percent are doubling their money on fruits, vegetables and milk.

    Or they could get healthier by growing food themselves in gardens, where, experts say, using lead-contaminated water has little effect. That's the idea behind a 10-year-old group called Edible Flint.

    Last year, this demonstration plot, roughly the size of three city house lots, produced nearly 2,000 pounds of kale, tomatoes and other produce.

  • Julie Darnton:

    Sometimes, people will actually drive up with requests, like, do you have green tomatoes today?

  • John Yang:

    Julie Darnton is on edible Flint's leadership board.

  • Julie Darnton:

    The demonstration garden grew out of a desire to have a learning laboratory for people where they could see techniques and learn about different ways of growing food.

    But since the water crisis, we really have had a focus on connecting what we're doing here with people's health.

  • John Yang:

    Health is also the focus of Flint Kids Cook. There's evidence these kids take what they learn home.

  • Michigan State’s Amy Saxe-Custack:

  • Amy Saxe-Custack:

    Since the class, they're wanting to write the grocery list and they're running through the grocery store and saying, we need this, we need this.

  • John Yang:

    And at the end of their six-week session, the young cooks proudly serve dinner to their families, a tasty lesson in good nutrition and good health.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Flint, Michigan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So heartening to see something positive coming out of that.

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