There are french fries, then there are potatoes.

And the two are just as different as they are similar.

Knowing that nutritional difference, then acting accordingly in the grocery store, is the goal of an eating awareness program cooked up by West Virginia University and Rock Forge Neighborhood House Inc., a United Way agency that caters to the needs of families in Monongalia and Preston counties.

Since January, RFNH and WVU ’s Office of Health Services Research in the Department of Community Medicine have offered workshops through the Families First Community Nutrition Program, the first program of its kind in north-central West Virginia .

Families First teaches the ways of good nutrition to low-income families, and the culinary equation, WVU ’s Rachael Gainor says, is simple: When you eat healthier, you become healthier.

Many families across West Virginia suffer from obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, said Gainor, a program manager with the Office of Health Services and Research.

The culprit is usually what isor isn’ton the dinner plate, she said.

“Many families in West Virginia are unhealthy, and poor nutrition plays a major role in that,”Gainor said.”Eating healthy is easier and more affordable than you think it is. Really. And we can show you how it’s done.

“It’s really about making better choices when you are shopping and cooking,”she added.”Small changes, like making a macaroni salad with light salad dressing and whole wheat pasta can make all the difference in the world to your health.”

The same goes with limiting yourself to one fast-food meal a month, she said.

Or, she said, remembering to steer your shopping cart to the outer aisles of the grocery storewhere the meat, produce, dairy and bakery items arefirst.

Around 50 families have been attending monthly workshops at the Neighborhood House, said executive director Alexis McMillen.

The hands-on, common sense sessions and easy-to-digest PowerPoint data keep them coming back for seconds, she said.

“People are getting to know each other,”she said.”They’re asking questions and sharing stories. That’s exactly what we wanted to see. Our success will be achieved by showing people how to establish healthy choices that are reasonable for their lifestyle.”

Like potatoes-versus-french fries, she said.

“Instead up picking up a 1-pound bag of frozen french fries, grab a 5-pound bag of potatoes, instead,”she said.”They both cost around $3, and you can do a lot with the fresh product because you’re getting away from processed food with all that fat and sodium.”

Families First is funded with a $50,000 federal grant through the Community Food and Nutrition Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its Office of Community Services. Gainor and McMillen wrote the grant.

Questions about eligibility or registration? Call McMillen at 304-292-3286. The program also welcomes volunteers.