By Karen L. Ranz, Rutland VT
Depending on who you read and what day you read it, we’re well into either the second or third generation of parents who don’t have sufficient skills to shop for, prepare, and serve healthy meals at home. Over-reliance on industrialized food bites heavily into our pocketbooks and our well-being. Getting by on limited food budgets and time constraints are both causes of poor diets and the decline of family meals where values are learned. It’s more economical in the short run to order from the dollar menu than to cook. There is also a “paradox of poverty” that comes with our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, in that it’s contributing to epidemic proportions of childhood obesity. Several years ago I was standing at a friend’s kitchen sink quickly peeling my way through a bagful of carrots when I was dumbstruck to hear her say, “Oh! So that’s how you do that. I’ve been holding it the other way!” meaning she’d held the blade of the peeler turned upward. Understand, please, that Kelly received her law degree from Oxford and worked as a diplomat in women’s, children’s and refugee issues for the US State Department. She’s an erudite, compassionate professional who had simply never been shown her way around a kitchen because her family valued education above all else. And I have to just guess that travelling the world, often in armored caravans through strife-torn areas, hadn’t allowed her to run across anything as dangerous as a vegetable peeler!
A quick trip through the aisles I seldom shop revealed that I can buy pre-cooked bacon for $25.88/lb. In slightly over 12 feet of freezer cases dedicated to frozen potato products alone I could also choose prepared tater-tot-like morsels for $3.29/lb delivering 20% of my daily sodium requirements and 16% of my RDA for fat — overwhelmingly saturated — in a single serving. I learned that disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate is certainly good on potatoes, whatever it is, but I’m still flummoxed about what the ‘natural flavoring’ is all about. Conversely, whole red potatoes, trucked in from who-knows-where but not a factory kitchen, are $1.29/lb, sans fat. For another $1.29 I can buy a 1 lb bag of split peas making more than the suggested six servings with only a bit of pantry items and some occasional attention while I do other things; or I could spend $1.99 for a can of Campbell’s serving two, or even more per serving if I prefer the ‘just add boiling water’ instant cups that end up in a landfill. The processing and packaging that make up so much of our contemporary food supply come with a price.
Thankfully, the recently passed Farm Bill will expand the purchasing power of SNAP benefits for fresh produce. But the crucial difference between having access to fresh healthy foods and eating healthy diets is the ability to shop for and prepare meals. Promoting the skills necessary to plan and serve appealing, balanced menus in a family environment is one place to start. Accepting new foods, particularly for children, comes along right behind, of course. Reading labels, understanding ingredients and nutritional content, comparing portion sizes and unit pricing as well as ‘shopping the perimeter’ of a store also play their parts. Re-evaluating our priorities is as intrinsic as food- and time-budgeting. Developing these basic life skills affects us all — it affects our combined futures.
A local-foods activist in the upper mid-west recommends giving fresh garden produce to children with instructions to take it to Grandma because she may be the only one in the family who can prepare it. While this is truly insightful, it does not yet address root problems. Certainly those like me trying to get by with SNAP benefits might do well to increase our skills. However, a mother in a two-career family confessed that she knows her teenagers need to learn to take care of themselves, but she simply doesn’t have the time to also teach them their way around the kitchen and a grocery store. So, all ages and income levels are feeling stresses, and that represents an important opportunity that can’t be met by schools and social service organizations.
In two years working as an AmeriCorps VISTA in central Appalachia with nonprofit agencies on poverty-related issues including childhood obesity and financial stability, I located several evidence-based programs in the public domain for use by community organizations. These represent valuable assets. Another thing I found diving into my first copy of Joy of Cooking many years ago while paying my way through college is that building confidence in the kitchen has come to equate to a great deal of joy in the creativity and accomplishment, in trying new foods, meeting people and understanding differences, and sharing all this with friends — even intermittently supplementing my income cooking professionally on private game preserves and writing the odd food piece. It’s also added to my ability to establish roots in this community, barter for things I need, and share with those I care about in many other truly personal ways. The ability to cook has taught me confidence and personal resilience.
Along with the community gardens currently being built, the Vermont Farmers Food Center (VFFC) is planning a demonstration / learning kitchen as local resource. Its purposes will be to support food security and promote community resilience regardless of age, skill level or income. Basic methods and more advanced cooking skills are the first focus in a ‘Learn, Do, Teach’ model ensuring the success of sharing accomplishments, retaining participants, and building in-reach supporting low-income residents. Hosting farmstead dinners supporting our local growers and producers is another.
We’re expecting to attract chefs, bakers, food artisans and peer leaders from the community and much more widely for live demonstrations, especially during the winter market. It’s hoped that a number of churches will step forward to share the work of providing one additional community meal near the end of each month when SNAP benefits have run out. The facility will also establish VFFC as an informal venue for fundraisers and benefits as well as putting Rutland even more squarely on the map as a local foods destination promoting a Heart of Vermont brand. If demand is as expected, there may also be dinners featuring game and world cuisines for those with a taste for adventure.
The design is being finalized with native Vermont slate countertops as its centerpiece. A commercial dishwasher and coffee maker have been donated by EP Management, and likely funding sources for part of the costs have been identified. There is much enthusiasm from local organizations focused on nutrition, wellness and hunger issues. Continuing support from throughout the community to make this a success will also be necessary.
No more evidence is needed that Rutland has the will and capacity to accomplish great things for the benefit of us all. Food security and nutrition are already topics many of us actively underwrite whether we buy locally, volunteer with RAFFL, donate to food shelves or share our garden’s abundance. The kitchen represents VFFC’s next strategic step in building a local food system one plate at a time, one in which none of our neighbors goes hungry, and will be Rutland’s next big accomplishment.
The author is a former kitchen designer, project manager, grant writer and a confessed ‘foodie’ volunteering with VFFC, grateful to be part of Rutland’s Uprising.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.