In her native country of Haiti, Luna Sainrilus never ate canned or frozen fruits and vegetables.
"We grew everything fresh. We didn't eat anything frozen," said Sainrilus, who has lived in Norwalk for the last three years.
But during the Norwalk Health Department's Growing Gardens, Growing Health program this summer, Sainrilus said that she learned a lot about reading food labels, and in doing so discovered there are some healthy, cost-effective canned and frozen goods not loaded with sugar and sodium she can feed her family.
"I always thought anything in the can or frozen was not good," she said. "But now I learned some are good. And you get them on sale and save them for weeks."
Sainrilus and her daughter Cynthia, 6, were at the community garden at Fodor Farm in Norwalk on Monday to mark the culmination of the nine-week program with a harvest party.
The program, which is in its second year, connected Norwalk mothers and their children to gardening, nutrition lessons and cooking demonstrations to encourage healthier food choices for the whole family.
The program, which ran for nine consecutive Mondays, was made possible by the support of the Aetna Foundation and the Elizabeth Raymond Ambler Trust.
Over the course of the summer, participants worked with two master gardeners and a nutritionist from the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension to plant and grow fresh vegetables and herbs.
The UConn Cooperative Extension System provides practical learning resources to address complex problems of families, communities, agriculture, business and industry. CES is part of a nationwide educational network through the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Teams of professionals and trained volunteers teach the state's diverse population to make informed choices and decisions affecting their lives and environment.
"The program covered gardening basics, container gardening, healthy shopping on a budget, healthy snacks, choosing better beverages, portion sizes and reading food labels, as well as lessons on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and protein," said Theresa Argondezzi, health educator from the Norwalk Health Department. "Each nutrition lesson included basic facts and tips for making healthy choices and wrapped up with a cooking demonstration of great, healthy, low-cost recipes."
Some of those recipes were served up on Monday, including a tomato, basil and bean pasta salad and a farmer's market salsa.
Prior to enjoying the meal, moms and kids meandered through the community garden and harvested their green beans, swiss chard, kale, peppers and eggplants from the two teaching plots that were used throughout the program.
"One week, the moms went on a grocery shopping tour at the Grade A ShopRite in Norwalk to learn about shopping on a budget, which was a fun and very informative activity made possible by Cooking Matters and ShopRite," Argondezzi said. "The moms and their families also had access to two master gardeners and a nutritionist each week to get guidance and ask specific questions. We heard questions on everything from food allergies in the kitchen to pest management in the garden. It was a great learning experience for everyone."
The families also were offered a small plot of their own to continue maintaining after the program ends.
"We heard from a lot of families that they will maintain their garden plot and hope to be back next year," Argondezzi said.
"We got great feedback from the moms," said Heather Peracchio, assistant extension educator, UConn. "Based on these lessons, moms reported they have or plan to make a number of nutrition changes for themselves and their family, including eating and serving a variety of different color vegetables; choosing whole grains; reading food labels to identify calories, serving size, fiber, sodium and sugar; using more fruits; and incorporating their kids in food prep more often."
The Growing Gardens, Growing Health program is not the only program the Norwalk Health Department runs to encourage healthy eating. The department operates a Farmers Market Wednesdays through Nov. 6 in its parking lot at 137 East Ave. Shoppers can get fresh, locally grown produce from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The farmer market accepts cash, credit, Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) vouchers and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
For information about the program, call Santina Galbo at 203-854-7974.