Canned ravioli, instant cups of soup, and microwaveable chicken dinners are a fixture in the kitchens of people who can’t afford to buy food.
They’re free from food banks and charity distribution programs, because they’re easy to prepare and don’t go bad. But they’re not the most nutritious meals, and their sugar content and preservatives can often lead to a series of long-term health and dietary problems, ranging from obesity to diabetes.
On a weekly basis, food banks and social welfare organizations in town offer low-income residents a wide array of food, from canned goods to meats, and local non-profit gardens donate thousands of pounds of fresh produce. But what’s missing in Charlottesville—according to a bevy of health, aide, and food workers—is what happens with that food once it gets home.
Cass Bailey, the pastor of Charlottesville’s Trinity Episcopal Church is out to change that.
“A lot of people just don’t know what fresh food really tastes like,” said Bailey. “The other aspect to that is, O.K., you get fresh food, but then how are you going to cook it? What ways do we need to learn and re-learn how we prepare our foods in order to get the most taste and the most nutrients from them?”
Lack of education contributes to the dual struggles of hunger and obesity in many poor communities, he said. “How do you tackle the problem of people not getting the proper nutrition that they need and at the same time have a weight problem because of what they eat?”
Partnering with dozens of health care professionals, farmers, and fellow ministers, and armed with grants and donations, Bailey is heading up a new initiative aimed at revolutionizing Charlottesville’s food culture by teaching low-income residents how to cook unfamiliar foods, how to preserve fresh produce so it can be eaten when it goes out of season, and how to structure meals so they bring families together.
By next spring, Bailey plans to have renovated the church’s basement kitchen with new top-of-the-line equipment, along with an expanded work and storage space, in order to offer a wide array of free and low-cost cooking, canning, and dietary classes.
Using education to close Charlottesville’s food gap is not a new idea, but many who work with organizations trying to help the hungry say Trinity’s efforts will bring needed tools to a tough fight.
Karen Waters-Wicks runs the food drive program at New Beginnings church in Belmont, and in 2007 helped found an urban garden project near Friendship Court to grow and distribute produce, particularly to lower-income families. That project has grown into the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville (UACC), a nonprofit that grows more than 10,000 pounds of food a year on just over half an acre of city land.
Waters-Wicks said it’s not just the availability of fresh foods that makes the difference, it’s knowing what to do with it. Often the younger generation won’t know what to do with the five pounds of fresh chard or radishes they get.
“The 20- to 40-year-olds that have been cooking with microwaves all their lives, that’s the hardest [population] to really reach. And they are the least skilled,” said Waters-Wicks. “When we have our market day, people ask all the time what ‘greens’ are. And when we tell them, they say, ‘Well, I guess I’ll take them to my mama, she’ll know what to do with them.’”
Other local institutions have pitched in to help teach a new generation of eaters the kinds of kitchen skills that lead to better nutrition. Waters-Wicks remembers teaming up with culinary arts teacher Bob Bressan’s students at CATEC when the urban garden project was in its infancy. They prepared the chard harvest in three different ways and brought their finished meals, along with recipes, to the gardens. Chefs from the UVA Health System’s nutritional services department regularly partner with UACC to offer family cooking classes at the Friendship Court Community Center.
The Haven, a Downtown day center for the homeless, also has offered several classes in years past, and has a rotating slot for one person at a time in its kitchen training program, offering instruction on cooking and preparing meals in a commercial fashion.
But The Haven’s efforts are aimed more at providing a healthy fresh breakfast to the area’s homeless, who most often do not have access to a kitchen or food storage. Kitchen manager Tina Stephens said she would love to expand instruction and put a special focus on nutrition-based training, because she believes it could make a real and immediate difference in peoples’ health.
“The folks we serve are basically in crisis,” said Stephens. “We’d love to see more nutrition-based training. We have a lot of folks with diabetes and a lot of them know not to eat straight sugar, but they don’t know a lot of the other stuff that goes with it.”
Educators and advocates agree: Space and resources for food education are limited, and ground-level participation from the people being served is a key ingredient. To have a fully stocked modern kitchen that is centrally located on a high-frequency bus line would be a dream come true, said Waters-Wicks.
“A community kitchen would be a tremendous asset to the food justice mission in Charlottesville, particularly if that kitchen is accessible and if there’s leadership from the population it’s intended to serve,” she said.
Bailey and the church’s advisory committee are stepping up to fill that leadership role, but for now, they’re focused on the money. Trinity Episcopal has raised more than $60,000 on its own and received a matching donation from one person for $25,000. It also raised an additional $20,000 and got a matching grant from the national Episcopal Church, which will be used to fund the programs and workshops they offer. Bailey plans to use those dollars to hold weekly classes, partnering with different churches, chefs, and educators in town to teach meal preparation and nutrition classes.
Alas, the church is about $15,000 short of the $90,000 needed to fully renovate the kitchen. Bailey is hoping the holidays will bring more attention—and support—to the program
“There are a number of meals programs at different times of the day throughout the week,” said Bailey. “But where there really is a gap is in trying to achieve some kind of systemic change, particularly from the individual perspective with the way people relate to food.”