How Scholarships for Groceries Aim to Impact Food Deserts

How Scholarships For Groceries Aim To Impact Food Deserts

Wed 16 Apr 2014

Story by Jessica Hamlin

Groceryships: How Scholarships for Groceries Aim to Impact Food Deserts

Sam Polk and his wife Kirsten were watching the documentary “Forks Over Knives” when Kirsten burst into tears. A man in the documentary, which promotes a plant-based diet, had changed his diet to include more whole, plant-based foods and cut his cholesterol in half. Kirsten, a surgeon at the time, had been on Lipitor for years and was intrigued that there might be another way to help her body and kick lifelong medication.

After the Polks altered their diets to focus on more fresh vegetables and whole foods, Kirsten’s cholesterol levels reduced by half within months and she stopped taking Lipitor. The couple felt better in general but wanted to learn more.

Their world was rocked again when they watched the documentary “A Place at the Table” that drove home the reality that many people—some not far from where the Polks resided in Los Angeles—were struggling to eat and lacked access to healthy food that others can find regularly at a farmers market or grocery store. Many of these people live in food deserts—areas often overrun with fast food options but missing ample fresh, quality produce, which is a more expensive option struggling families often find hard to afford. Consequently, many people who live in food deserts are overweight due to a lack of healthy options.

The Polks were determined to do something about the hunger and nutrition shortfalls in their own backyard. After brainstorming with their friend Joe Spiccia, Sam created Groceryships, a program that gives six-month scholarships for healthy groceries and nutritional and emotional counseling to low-income families in South Los Angeles.

Each Groceryships family receives gift cards to buy whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, seeds and nuts. During the six-month period, Groceryships’ clinic partners monitor families’ health and progress by tracking changes in weight, BMI, cholesterol, and glucose levels.

Support is an important part of any health journey so Groceryships families meet weekly to learn nutrition, healthy cooking and shopping skills they can practically apply to their lives. Also, nutritionists are on-call during the week to provide nutrition counseling and recipe suggestions.

Since food can be tied to so much—appearance, self-worth, emotions, comfort and culture, for example—half of each weekly meeting is devoted to getting to the root of and addressing food issues like the emotional side of eating and overcoming addictive foods. Sam’s wife Kirsten is now a psychiatry resident at UCLA interested in psycho-social and emotional issues surrounding obesity and acts as Groceryships’ medical director.

Add resources like food feelings journals, donated kitchen appliances, children’s nutrition cookbooks, and healthy eating DVDs such as “Forks Over Knives” and “Hungry for Change,” and Groceryships hopes to have a recipe for empowering families to make healthy decisions for generations to come.

Groceryships recently had its first meeting for its first group of families in the program. Laughs erupted and tears flowed as South LA residents struggling to make ends meet and nourish themselves and loved ones came together to share and learn. Angela, Groceryships’ head of programming & marketing, demonstrated how to make a simple and healthy salad and families got in on the action as they chopped and served up the nutritious dish. It’s exciting to think what the rest of these six months and beyond hold for these families with children of all ages.

Sharing and learning is not limited to the families Groceryships serves, since the leadership and volunteer team devotes part of its own meetings to sharing personal food and health issues and triumphs. Some people on the Groceryships team are trying to have more vegetables in their diet, while others are trying to reduce their caffeine intake or find balance with exercise. A raw vegan chef attended a few gatherings to see how she can help. Everyone has something to offer, be it expertise, life experience or both.

We are each a work in progress on the journey of life and health together and must never forget that in order to be more open, vulnerable and helpful to others. You never know how your story will impact someone and vice versa.

Groceryships has great potential to grow and help more people break the pattern of food insecurity. The organization welcomes whatever people can offer—time, knowledge, funds or anything else you can think of. To find out more about Groceryships, go to

About the Author: Jessica Hamlin is a journalist, web producer and self-proclaimed health evangelist who lives in Los Angeles and recently got involved with Groceryships. She is a foodie passionate about learning how to make bodies and minds healthy through proper nutrition, exercise and education about toxins in things we consume. A recovering refined sugar junkie, she also loves finding ways to make delicious treats with more natural sweeteners and nutritious ingredients. You can see her work at and see her healthy meals and desserts on Instagram @jessicahamlinb.


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