Pilot program brings cooking classes to food pantries, social-service groups, health clinics

May 8, 2012
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By Sarah Lemon
Mail Tribune

The Rogue Valley’s hungriest households have recently reaped the benefits of more locally grown foods.

Yet preparing the produce of local community gardens and small farms, distributed by area food banks, still challenges many needy families. A pilot program to bring cooking classes to food pantries, social-service organizations and even health clinics is changing the way participants look at fresh, from-scratch meals.

Learn more about the sixth annual Eat Local Challenge, Sept. 9-18 at www.mailtribune.com/eatlocal. The page is full of resources, including links to participating restaurants, growers markets and THRIVE, the group behind the event, as well as suggestions for incorporating more locally produced foods into your meals.

“I start with really good ingredients and keep it simple,” says Kristen Lyon while demonstrating a stir-fry for a dozen employees and clients of Pathway Enterprises.

Lyon works under THRIVE, the economic-development and food-advocacy group that initiated the annual Eat Local Challenge. The Leightman Maxey Foundation awarded THRIVE more than $3,700 to host seven free cooking classes for low-income and at-risk families from July through October.

“We’re sending people home with food, and they get to taste it, so that’s a great way to engage people,” says Wendy Siporen, executive director of THRIVE.

The fourth class, “Cooking in the Garden,” slated for Saturday at Josephine County Food Bank in Grants Pass, coincides with Eat Local week. Lyon, a personal chef, also will teach methods of canning, freezing and dehydrating seasonal produce in a Wednesday, Sept. 14, class open to the general public at a cost of $30 per person. Call 541-531-6740 to register.

Lyon starts with a summer cornucopia — peppers, onions, cucumbers, summer squash, corn, cauliflower, broccoli, chard, kale and tomatoes — purchased at the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market to prepare Thai peanut vegetables with chicken at Pathway. Rather than following a recipe to the letter, she encourages cooking to clients’ tastes and considering flavor profiles — sweet, salty, bitter and earthy — to create a well-rounded dish.

“I want you guys to just see the technique,” she says. “Stick with whole foods and less preservatives as much as possible.”

Fresh, seasonal produce constitutes about 20 percent of food-pantry boxes, says Philip Yates, nutrition programs manager for ACCESS Inc., the county’s emergency food bank. Vegetables grown in community gardens this year for ACCESS, about 70,000 pounds, likely will be about double last year’s quantity, says Yates. Two more gardens were established this year, bringing the number to five cultivating a total of one and a half acres for the food bank, he adds.

About 39,000 local families receive ACCESS food boxes containing 70 pounds of groceries every five days for a family of three, says Yates. If the trend for the first six months of this year continues, the number of clients grew by 15 percent compared with last year, which saw the highest demand to date, he adds.

Client surveys reinforced the types of garden-fresh vegetables ACCESS provided last year, says Yates, but education remains a critical component of emergency food assistance. ACCESS has always provided some recipes, along with samples through a partnership with Oregon State University Extension, but not hands-on cooking classes. Education around fresh foods is a focus of ACCESS’ new grant application to Meyer Memorial Trust, he adds.

“If you can get someone to make small changes … I think that’s a good way to do it,” he says.

Lyon urges Pathway participants to prepare two vegetables — one raw and one cooked — at each meal, instead of just one. Pathway community living specialist Jennifer Solis cooked kale for the first time after Lyon’s class and even planted some at Pathway’s Central Point group home.

“The food was very good, and it was fresh,” says Solis. “You could tell the difference.”

Solis says she also gained the confidence to help clients learn their way around the kitchen. Upcoming classes are planned at Community Health Center, Family Nurturing Center and Kids Unlimited in Medford. Call THRIVE at 541-488-7272 for more information.