Thanksgiving will never be the same for families in Flint, Michigan, the city that made national news in 2015 for its lead-contaminated drinking water. Mae Collins, 50, is no exception. Her annual family tradition has changed drastically since 2014, when city officials switched the city’s drinking water source to the Flint River, turning tap water into brown filth.
Since then, using tap water—for cooking, bathing, drinking—has felt like a gamble for Collins, a risky rolling of dice, even now when the state deems the city’s water lead levels acceptable (while still recommending residents use a filter).
“Why you gon’ tell us to use our filters, but you say all the lead is out the water?” Collins told Earther, speaking to the city’s recommended water instructions.
In the years before the water crisis, Collins used to spend Thanksgiving at home. She kept it more intimate, cooking for her seven kids and her husband’s five kids, not worrying about water bottles or lead.
She misses cooking elaborate dinners—homemade mac and cheese, boiled green beans, and, of course, turkey.
Since last year, Collins and her family have been heading to her sister’s house in Flint. Everyone is responsible for a single dish. That way, no one has to deal with the overwhelming stress that comes from cooking an entire Thanksgiving dinner water bottle by water bottle. Collins only has to worry about the water required to boil green beans; her husband will handle the frying of the turkey.
“It’s been a long time since we sat at home and really ate a good holiday dinner,” Collins said. “Because you don’t feel like moving all that water and cooking.”
Water’s not the only new factor, though. Health and nutrition now take a larger seat at the dinner table, too. The menu hasn’t changed much, but there’s a newfound respect for what family members put into their body. There’s also a fear of what will come if families don’t take care of themselves, as some research points to food as a way to keep lead from traveling through the body.
“You don’t know, you probably so scared, you wanna’ stay protected,” Collins said about her new habit of eating healthy. “As long as you in Flint, you wanna’ stay protected.”
Throughout the city, doctors and nutritionists are offering families a sense of protection through food. Aside from taking extreme caution with the water, fresh fruits and vegetables might be the only way to keep further lead poisoning at bay—especially for the city’s youngest warriors.
Junetta Eubanks is another mom in Flint. She knew something was wrong with her water in 2014, as soon as she noticed a rash on two of her children. She’s a 33-year-old mother of six, so she took no risks. She knew the city had switched its water source. From that day on, the family bathed only with a Brita shower head filter and drank only bottled water.
“We started doing bottled water instantly, and within a few months, we got a water cooler in our house,” Eubanks told Earther.
She’s grateful she and her husband reacted proactively: She was pregnant during the water crisis, and three of her children were younger than 6.
Drinking lead-contaminated water that young can change a child’s life forever. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say no level of lead in blood is safe for a kid that young, but blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter put a child at an even higher risk for impacts to their brain and nervous system that can delay development and cause comas, convulsions, and even death.
Junetta Eubanks and her husband, Ladell. Photo Courtesy of Junetta EubanksAt the time, residents still had no idea how severe the contamination was. Before the water source switch, roughly 2 percent of kids in Flint tested positive for elevated blood levels, according to state data. After? A whopping 7 percent. Flint kids were 50 percent more likely to see their blood levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter while the city was connected Flint River water.
Eubanks’ kids saw low blood lead levels, which she attributes to her family’s proactiveness. Still, she won’t take any chances. The family is more committed now to healthy eating than ever, which has instilled a new appreciation for all types of plants. Like kale. The mom never ate the hearty vegetable before she was made aware of its nutritional value. Now she’s always cheffing it up.
“I started cooking it like I cook my greens,” she said. “The kids can’t tell difference, and it tastes great.”
Everyone knows they should eat healthily; this is true around the world. In Flint, however, eating healthy represents hope.
Scientists are just beginning to explore the science behind keeping lead already in the body out of the bloodstream. They do know that low iron is associated with elevated blood lead levels, at least according to some studies. So foods high in iron—like spinach and lentils—should, in theory, help mitigate some negative lead health impacts. Vitamin C is another potential lead fighter, as various bodies of research have shown that children with higher vitamin C intakes have a lower chance of elevated blood lead levels, especially when coupled with high-iron diets.
Calcium is another mineral that might help mitigate the effects of lead exposure, but the research is conflicting. “It makes sense that low calcium intake would be related to greater lead absorption,” per one analysis, but studies are inconsistent in whether calcium actually keeps lead in the bones and away from other organs.
No food, however, can reverse lead exposure. And most lead mitigation studies have been done on kids with higher blood lead levels than those Flint has seen or on animals, as the aforementioned analysis pointed out. To Michigan State University Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition Amy Saxe-Custack, the science still feels too flimsy to make specific recommendations.
“Some of the recommendations, although they’re good recommendations, they’re not different from what I would recommend, as a nutritionist, to anyone,” she told Earther.
Saxe-Custack directs nutrition activities with the Pediatric Public Health Initiative Group, a partnership between Michigan State University and the Hurley Medical Center Children’s Hospital that came together last year in light of Flint’s health crisis.
The group wants to make sure the city’s children have the best chances for success. Lead in particular poses dangerous risks to a child’s development. It can impact a child’s IQ, ability to pay attention, and academics.
Nutrition and early childhood education are what Saxe-Custack and many other professionals say children exposed to lead really need.
In Flint, this is easier said than done, though, especially when it comes to good food. The city is what we’d call a food desert. These are neighborhoods the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as ones that “lack healthy food sources.” For some families, that might look like a grocery store that’s more than a mile away—without access to public transportation. Or maybe a family’s grocery store options are very limited. Flint has seen a pattern of grocery stores closing in recent years.
But in wake of the lead crisis, the city isn’t standing by: Community members and public health advocates have rallied to bring fresh healthy foods into Flint.
Chef Sean Gartland hosts a six-week long nutrition and cooking class every Tuesday at the Flint Farmers Market. The market’s modernized lead-free water pipe infrastructure makes it an ideal location to prepare food. The catch with the class? It’s just for kids.
The current class has 10 kids who range from 8 to 17 years old. Most of them live in Flint, and most are black. The Public Health Initiative Group has been offering the class to parents at the Hurley Medical Center since October, after the group received a $50,000 grant from an anonymous foundation to make it happen. The idea is to teach kids what makes a healthy meal and then give them the tools they need to cook it themselves—after they decide on what they want to cook, of course.
This class is indicative of a food revolution in Flint. It’s a culmination of work that kicked off in 2015, immediately after the greater public became aware of the water crisis.
Saxe-Custack is there every week to analyze the class, take photos and video, and conduct focus groups.
“The kids are really enjoying it,” she said. “We have several picky eaters whose parents want them to come to the class to get them to try more foods and try new foods, so the perception at least is that that’s working.
Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who helped expose the blood lead levels of Flint’s children, helped spearhead the effort as part of a broader push to help eradicate the city’s food desert issue and foster a sense of wellness. In 2015, the Hurley pediatric clinic, where she works, moved to the new farmers market location downtown. With the farmers market, the clinic, the new cooking class, and the YMCA all near each other, the Wellness Hub was born.
Already, research has shown that this new farmers market location drew more residents from “the most distressed neighborhoods,” as a study published last year put it. Now that people like Hanna-Attisha and Saxe-Custack are working together to make this food more affordable, they expect even more low-income and residents of color to buy their groceries at the farmers market.
One of the ways they’re doing this is through fruit and vegetable prescriptions. Hurley pediatric clinic patients receive a $10 prescription—which is increasing to $15 around December—for fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers market. Any time they come in for a checkup or doctor’s visit, patients receive a prescription. Saxe-Custack explains that many have come to expect it and ask if a medical resident or doctor forgets to offer.
“The parents are reminding them,” Saxe-Custack said. “So they’ll come to the clinic and say, ‘Hey, aren’t I supposed to get a fruit and vegetable prescription?’ And that’s kind of nice, too, that the families are getting used to it and expecting it.”
The farmers market is only open on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, but parents can also pick up a produce bag the market produces at the clinic. In 2016, the medical center handed out roughly 4,221 prescriptions with more than 61 percent of parents redeeming the vouchers, per data Saxe-Custack provided Earther.
And this isn’t the only place where Flint residents can go to find the foods necessary to cook their Thanksgiving dinner. Two mobile food markets have set up across the city.
Flint Fresh, a local food nonprofit, is behind the mobile markets, and it even offers online orders. Saxe-Custack is working with the nonprofit to see how the prescriptions could be used through it, too.
This is food that technically costs money, though, even if through a prescription. Free food options exist, too, especially for people who are already receiving federal food assistance. There’s Double Up Food Bucks, which gives users even more money to spend toward fresh fruits and vegetables when they buy foods at participating locations.
There are also food pantries; some are even mobile. Two mobile pantries exist in Flint, providing free fruits and vegetables to any resident who wants them.
“This is something that’s been going on in the community for a long time,” said Yvonne Lewis, the outreach director for the Genesee Health Plan, to Earther. “But as a result of the water crisis and the lack of access to grocery stores that have fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, more churches and community groups started having them on weekly basis.”
Collins is a fan of the food pantries. The food is free, so it makes her life a little bit easier, especially since her household relies on just her husband for income.
“There is some good in it,” she said. “You don’t have to spend your money on a lot of fruits and vegetables.”
Collins still looks at the holiday season with joy. The memories are deeper than a turkey that required bottles and bottles of water to clean.
The time Collins gets to spend with everyone—like her seven sisters—is priceless. She looks forward to her cousins coming in from New York. They didn’t make it last year because of, well, the water.
“It was sad, but hopefully they’ll come this year,” she said.
If not, she won’t be alone. She’ll have the rest of her family and the love that’s flourished in their homes regardless of what’s spewing out of their faucets.
No amount of lead—or empty plastic water bottles—can diminish that.