Teaching New Yorkers To Cook Healthy, Delicious MealsThu 26 May 2011
Story by Angela Davis
As Just Food’s Community Food Education Program Coordinator, I train New Yorkers to educate their neighbors about local sustainable food and healthy eating.
Just Food is a nonprofit organization that connects communities throughout New York City with fresh, locally grown food. We pursue this mission by creating opportunities for New Yorkers to access locally grown food through Community Supported Agriculture networks (CSAs), farmers’ markets, farm-to-food pantry, food education and advocacy programs.
Our goal is to teach New Yorkers – in every neighborhood – to cook healthy, delicious, and affordable meals. My job is to train community members from diverse backgrounds to lead cooking demonstrations and to coordinate their efforts at farmers’ markets in low-income communities and food pantries.
Eating healthy is at the heart of being healthy. The best way to get people to eat healthy is to come at it from a very positive viewpoint and to really get people excited about eating fresh, local food. Too often, nutritionists or public health officials use fear and negative messages when talking about diet and health. While people come away with the message that it’s important to eat healthy, they may also come away with the message that if it’s healthy, it’s not tasty.
The unfortunate fact is that as a nation, America has either lost, or never learned, basic cooking skills. Our aim is to help people re-discover that cooking at home doesn’t have to be a big endeavour and that making fresh, healthy meals can be fun.
When I joined the staff of Just Food in the spring of 2007, I helped to launch a formal “Community Chef” training program. The training incorporates interactive teaching and facilitation skills, as well as recipe development, knife and food safety, and hands-on cooking demonstration skills. These Community Chefs are trained to put on cooking demonstrations at CSAs, farmers’ markets and food pantries because our staff recognized the difference between making healthy food available, and giving people the knowledge and confidence to be able to cook for themselves and their families.
In my first year at Just Food, I spent a lot of time on outreach, letting people know about the training program. Four years later the program has grown to the point that I’m getting monthly requests from people interested in becoming Community Chefs. At the same time, we get more requests from farmers’ markets and food pantries who want the Community Chefs at their site, than we have the funding to respond to. The cooking demonstrations get people excited about cooking because they engage all of their senses. Showing people how easy it can be to make a quick meal, having them taste the results, and then providing them with a recipe is an important combination. People taste new vegetables or learn new ways to prepare old favorites (I didn’t know you could cook the beet greens!) and they share their own recipes or memories of favorite dishes. It’s made a huge difference at the food pantries, where clients are more likely to take home an unfamiliar vegetable once they learn how to cook it and what it tastes like.
Our target audience is adults, but our cooking demonstrations engage the entire family. When there are kids in the audience, they’re often in the front row, making it easier for their parents to participate. Encouraging kids to cook with their parents is a great way to bring families together. Cooking together is a fun and productive way to enrich limited family time. Improving school food is very important, but kids don’t live by themselves. It’s important to reach the adults: the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and caregivers, who have a big influence on what and how their children eat.
What’s also really exciting for me about the Community Chef program is that not only does it build food and cooking knowledge for people attending the demonstrations, but the training also builds the confidence of our Community Chefs to be active and vocal advocates for healthy food in their own communities. It’s rewarding to play a role in transforming community health, one Community Chef, one cooking demo, and one family at a time.
About the author: Angela Davis is the Community Food Education Coordinator at ‘Just Food’ in New York City.
Photos from 2010 Community Chef training workshops:
Main image: Lucia Bravo, Mirelle Massac, Teresa Mellerowicz, Lin Hong
Top right: Madea Allen-Gueye, Yemi Oyename, Jennifer Stapleton, Angela Davis
Bottom right: Angela Davis
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