Fifteen students huddle around a table as Cascade Culinary Institute Chef Julian Darwin demonstrates how to prepare, cook and enjoy an affordable and deliciously healthy meal with the self-possession of a 30-year kitchen veteran. As part of a six-week cooking program, called Cooking Matters, Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) eligible Deschutes County residents are part of a weekly gathering between an unfortunately all too uncommon alliance. At one end of the table (pun intended) are moms, dads, grandparents, caregivers, kids and teens, all who want to cook and be healthier, yet for various reasons have not had the opportunity—or means—to do so. At the other end of the table, making the alliance possible, are chefs, culinary students, nutrition educators, and nonprofits, all of whom have a passion for healthy food and for making a difference in the lives of others. And twice a year for six-weeks in Deschutes, Cook and Jefferson Counties, these seemingly desultory alliances are being formed with one goal in mind: healthy cooking.
At the head of the table is the High Desert Food and Farm Alliance (HDFFA), and the most recent addition to their team, Meiko Lunetta. As program administrator, Lunetta carries an organizational mandate to increase access to fresh healthy food and build relationships between local producers and consumers of food. The Cooking Matters program, a key element in the national Share Our Strength: No Kid Hungry campaign, is the perfect platform for Lunetta and the HDFFA to carry out their organizational mission.
They have added their own "twist," as Lunetta calls it, to the Cooking Matters program. In addition to promoting nutrition, which is the primary goal of the Cooking Matters program, Lunetta and the HDFFA are reaching out to local producers to help supply some of the groceries that are used in the weekly classes.
"We are building local connections and supporting a community-based food system," Lunetta explains. For example, this week and for the duration of the program, two local vegetable producers, Volcano Veggies and Next Season Farm, are donating their hydroponic and aquaponic grown produce. This week, Ryan Snead from Next Season Farm brought in a beautiful selection of butter crunch and baby romaine lettuce that the students used in making their Asian-inspired chicken salads.
And the hope is for more alliances to be formed. Lunetta hopes that another Cooking Matters program will take place this fall where more of the ingredients that go into preparing each meal, and are given to the participants at the end of each class, will be filled with the local abundance of Central Oregon's own bounty.
Joining HDFFA's alliance for the current Cooking Matters program are Chef Darwin from the Cascade Culinary Institute, along with a pair of Culinary Institute students, and Jennifer Barton from Carrot Top Catering. Each is volunteering their time and, in their own way, trying to "give something back; the right tools to be healthier," says Chef Darwin and create "greater community connections," says Barton.
But good intention and all, is the program—and the cooking classes—actually working?
"I thought I knew how to cook," says one of the participants as Chef Darwin guides him through the process of making a gluten-free black bean brownie. "But I guess not," he adds as he pulls some admittedly delicious brownies out of the oven.
A few of the other participants express how great it is to receive, at the end of each class, a grocery bag of the exact ingredients used that night so they can practice at home. The idea, as Chef Darwin explains, is to get participants to become more familiar with ingredients to which they might not otherwise be exposed—healthy and fresh ingredients.
And when everyone joins around the table to share the night's meal together, it is clear that the alliance is working.
But for Lunetta and the HDFFA, this is hopefully just the beginning. They want more programs, including additional Cooking Matters classes or possibly "pop up" cooking classes that reinforce Community Supported Agriculture among various demographics. "But we need more community support," she expresses with a chagrin ubiquitous to most nonprofit organizations. And although she describes this course as "a small step," it is certainly a step heading in the right direction.