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Credit: Joe St. Pierre
The Way We Eat

How a Single Mom and Nurse Practitioner in Providence, Rhode Island Is Feeding Her Family Right Now

published Mar 22, 2020
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Name:  Rachael Berube
Location: Providence, RI
How many people regularly eat together in your home? 2 (Myself and my 4-year-old daughter, Iris.)
Avoidances: None, although I prefer to not eat a ton of meat because it’s not great for the planet and it’s expensive.

Rachael Berube is a single mom and a nurse practitioner in a busy primary care clinic in Providence, RI, a setting in which a majority of her patients don’t know where their next meal is coming from. She’s also recently found herself on the front lines, navigating the prevention of the COVID-19 virus in a community that’s already faced with pressing issues on a daily basis. In light of the developing situation, her 4-year-old daughters’ preschool closed, which means she also has to figure out childcare on top of everything else.

When Rachael and I found a time to chat, it was understandably after 8 p.m., her preschooler’s bedtime. We discussed feeling on edge in a vulnerable work environment, navigating childcare as a single working mom while schools are closed, and her 4-year-old’s affinity for frozen waffles.

Credit: Joe St. Pierre

Are things tense at work right now?
Anxiety is very high, but that can be said for most places in the world. This situation is unlike anything any of us have experienced. Patients have a lot of questions and are getting information about COVID-19 from very unreliable sources.

I work in a community health center, so we’re typically very busy with appointments and also people just walking in needing care. Over the past week, we’ve set up screening outside of the building so every single patient who wants to enter the clinic is getting screened for COVID-19 symptoms. If anyone is symptomatic, they are not allowed into the building. Those folks are getting triaged by our nurses over the phone. We have also cancelled all of our appointments with people who are at higher risk of getting really sick — those over 60 and people with chronic medical conditions. The clinic also just rolled out telephone visits. We are trying to keep everyone healthy, ourselves included!

Thank you for all the work that you’re doing to care for people in this crisis. How has your day to day changed in light of the situation?
In my clinic, our patients have so much else going on. They have questions about COVID-19 of course, but we have people coming in that don’t have a place to live, are dealing with urgent issues of food insecurity, and things like that, too. The situation seems to be evolving rapidly so who knows what next week will bring?

Credit: Joe St. Pierre

Outside of COVID-19, can you tell me more about the issues your clinic is navigating?
I work in a gigantic community health center and the majority of my patients are really poor. The town I work in is a food desert. There are no grocery stores. People have limited access to food because they don’t have money or cars to get to grocery stores outside of town.

I like to see where my patients are at and if they have any desire to make changes in their diet to begin with. If people are feeling up to making changes, we talk about places they can buy food where prices are more reasonable. When I talk to my patients about the kinds of foods they should be eating, I have to be really careful about how I talk to them about it. I’m coming from this place of privilege and they’re lucky if they have any food at all. I also have to take into account food choices that fit into my patient’s cultural backgrounds, folks from different places in the world. The way they eat is different from the way I eat.

Credit: Joe St. Pierre

Has being a nurse changed or informed the way you cook at home?
It actually hasn’t. I don’t think my career has changed the way I cook. The biggest thing that impacts the way I cook now is being a mom— a single mom.

Let’s talk about that! Walk me through a day together?
We wake up at six and eat breakfast together. My kid is really picky and there aren’t a lot of things that she likes to eat, which is really annoying. Breakfast for her is usually frozen waffles. I try to get the kind with protein to make up for the fact that it’s a frozen waffle and she’ll have that with some fruit. I’m a peanut butter toast kind of person. Or yogurt with some granola.

Credit: Joe St. Pierre
  • Biggest challenge in eating? I love love LOVE cooking. Pre-parenting, my favorite thing to do at the end of a day was to make a well-considered, beautiful dinner for myself and my friends. Since I’ve had my kid (she’s 4 now), planning meals, shopping and having time to cook actual, nutritious, interesting food has become such a challenge! I work full time, so I get home at 5:30 and then have to have dinner on the table in about 30 minutes in order to ensure that we are fed and that our evening routine is complete by my kid’s 8 p.m. bedtime. It has really taken the pleasure out of preparing food, and I am constantly reminding myself that this period in my life is only temporary.
  • How much do you cook at home every week? 80 percent cooking, 20 percent takeout.
  • What are your household’s top 3 default dinners? Tacos of all varieties. Tofu/vegetable stir-fry of some sort. Store-bought rotisserie chicken with a green veg and starch.
  • 5 things on your grocery list every week? Garlic, kale, frozen waffles, chicken, coffee.
  • Where do you shop, primarily? Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi.
  • The last grocery you splurged on? Probably fancy cheese.
  • Favorite drink? Brewed coffee with cream.
  • Favorite thing to eat while watching TV? I try not to eat while watching TV, but popcorn is probably my favorite TV snack.
  • Best underrated snack? A spoonful of peanut butter.
  • Most reliable kid snack: String cheese.
  • Most genius cooking tip anyone ever taught you? Rinse your rice!
  • Best cookie of all time? Oatmeal chocolate chip.
  • Best budget tip? Don’t shop when you’re hungry.
  • Cookbook you actually cook out of? Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison; Small Victories by Julia Turshen.
  • Who does the dishes? Me.

You mentioned you don’t have an official lunch break. How does that affect your day?
I always eat breakfast and I always eat some sort of lunch, there’s just no designated time to do that, you just shove it in when you can. I usually pack leftovers, whatever I had for dinner the night before or over the weekend. If people don’t show up for their appointments, I eat it then as fast as I can. Or in between folks. No one wants a hangry nurse making medical decisions.

Credit: Joe St. Pierre

What’s lunchtime like for Iris?
She usually goes to preschool full time and they feed her snacks and lunch at school which is amazing. I don’t have to pack her food. They send home a little menu every month of the things they’re planning to serve like whole grain chicken tenders with couscous and carrot sticks, pizza, pasta. A variety of standard foods you might expect in a school lunch and that works really well for us.

Right now, all schools are closed including my daughter’s preschool, so it’s been a struggle to figure out how to go to work everyday with no childcare! As a single parent it’s especially tricky. Many, many families are in the same boat right now and nobody knows how long it will be until things will go back to normal. I am fortunate to have paid time off, so I have been dipping into that to stay home with my kid on the days where there aren’t other options. Today was one of those days. We baked bread and watched a lot of educational YouTube videos. We also had a Zoom meeting with 12 of her preschool classmates, which was HILARIOUS.

Do you have a secret-weapon nurse snack?
We bring our snacks, the clinic doesn’t provide them. We’re all kind of sequestered away into these offices that we share with a couple people so I don’t get a broad view of what everyone does to survive the day. But I do know that in our office, we have a bucket of classic twisted pretzels and a bag of nuts.

Credit: Joe St. Pierre

You recently relocated to Providence from Minneapolis. How has the transition been?
I had been in Minneapolis for 7 years but I grew up in Massachusetts so moving here was like moving home for me. I’m a short trip from my parents. It was a big move geographically, and moving is a hassle and expensive, but it’s been fairly smooth. There’s been one big issue though. Near our old apartment, there was a neighborhood cafe that we would go to all the time that made a burrito that my child would reliably eat. It’s been really hard not to have that burrito three blocks away. I’ve tried to recreate it and she won’t have it She only wants that burrito. It’s hard to be a small child.

I appreciate your honestly when you say that this stage of parenting kind of has taken the pleasure out of preparing food. What are you most looking forward to in the next stage?
Certainly I’m hoping she becomes less picky and I assume that will happen over time. I think before having a kid, I would get home from work and even if it was a long day, I could go into the kitchen, make a cocktail, turn on music, and spend an hour preparing a good meal. I’m someone who loves cookbooks and has a whole collection that are now collecting dust on the shelf. I want to do something that takes 45 minutes, stirring a risotto at the stove. That hasn’t happened in 4 years. That’s what I’m looking forward to— having a bit more time and freedom to do that. As Iris gets older, she’ll get better at entertaining herself. Or maybe she’ll want to help.

Credit: Joe St. Pierre

I see that Iris has a kitchen set in your kitchen, so she can cook along with you. So smart!
That was the goal! I wanted to have something in the kitchen that would keep her entertained while I cook to minimize me having to run back and forth to help her with an art project or something. She likes to make potions.

Besides frozen waffles, what else will Iris eat?
Colby jack cheese specifically. Also crackers. Sometimes a slice of turkey, carrot sticks. She’ll also eat most fruit: Bananas, blueberries, clementines, grapes. That’s kind of it. She won’t even reliably eat a box of mac and cheese. One day! Right now, what am most I proud of is my willingness to prioritize feeding my family well despite all the challenges. There are some days when the reality of being a single mom feels super overwhelming, but then I think about the privilege that I have: I can afford to buy healthy food. My kid doesn’t know what it’s like to go hungry (unless she chooses not to eat), and she is growing and thriving.

Thanks for sharing, Rachael! And thank you for all that you’re doing to keep our community safe.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. How do you overcome challenges to feed yourself? If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.