Fighting Hunger with Food Smarts

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
September 12, 2014

In a city that has nearly 30 farmers markets and the most restaurants per capita nationwide, it may be hard to believe that thousands of adults don’t have access to healthy, nutritious food. Recent reports estimate that as many as 225,000 people are food insecure in San Francisco.

“San Francisco is a small city, but it’s even smaller for residents that are living in really impoverished circumstances,” says Adrienne Markworth, founder of Leah’s Pantry. “They may not go more than a block or two from their SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel or public housing development, where there’s little access to grocery stores or farmers markets and just corner stores with limited fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Seniors, disabled adults, children, and homeless people are especially vulnerable. Due to the high cost of living in San Francisco, even people living above the poverty level may have trouble making ends meet. CalFresh (California’s food stamp program) is underutilized by thousands of eligible individuals, and 12% of San Francisco residents rely on food pantries according a recent assessment.

Long Distances, Small Spaces

In 2006, Markworth started organizing workshops to help homeless women prepare healthy food for their children. She recognized that, despite the fact there were food banks and other services that provide fresh food to low-income individuals and families, closing the food gap also meant ensuring that they had the skills, capacity, and tools to put that food to use.

“If they don’t know how to process that butternut squash that they just got for free, it’s not helpful to them,” she says. “You have to get it into their bellies.”

Leah’s Pantry now works statewide to provide nutrition and culinary education for seniors, adults, and children through homeless shelters, public housing, food pantries, and social service agencies, but the organization remains strongly rooted in San Francisco’s Tenderloin.

For SRO residents, barriers to food access occur on many levels. Individuals may have to travel outside their neighborhood to find fresh food and often lack transportation to do so. Seniors and disabled individuals may be challenged by mobility issues. And at home, residents may not have their own kitchen, cooking equipment, or even a sink or full-size fridge, making food storage and preparation difficult. Processed snacks are an easy go-to. They may not be healthy, but they’re readily accessible, have a long shelf life, and require no preparation.

With nutrition, kitchen safety, and budget in mind, Leah’s Pantry’s Food Smarts classes empower individuals to cook from scratch with limited resources, equipment, and space. “We’re trying to break down some of those functional barriers,” says Markworth. “It’s about finding that balance of creating safe, successful ways to integrate more cooking, and making sure people have the resources and materials to do it.”

Building Kitchen Confidence

Engaging individuals on a personal level is key, which is why all Food Smarts classes begin with participants discussing their family food history, including what foods they ate as a child. “That’s what gets people’s imaginations revved up,” says Markworth. “They remember the taste of that sweet potato pie that they grew up eating.”

Classes help participants think in terms of simple recipes and three-day meal plans, so that when they buy a head of celery, they can feel confident it will all be put to good use. “When cooking from scratch, there are all these elements of risk that can potentially waste resources that someone might not have,” she says. “A lot of them have precious little energy to try something new and different. We don’t want them to feel like they’re a failure if they’re trying.”

This fall, the organization is working with Heart of the City Farmers Market to launch The Tenderloin Cooking School: Smart Meals for Small Spaces, a collection of stories and simple, inexpensive recipes from Tenderloin residents.

“Capturing stories about food and even food insecurity is important work,” says Markworth. “It’s not just stats. Looking at hunger issue from a human story perspective will speak to all of us that are engaged in food justice and food equity.”

Nourishing Communities

In the broader Bay Area, 18 Reasons’ Cooking Matters program (an offshoot of the national Share Our Strength program) also offers six-week nutrition classes in schools, community centers, health centers, and housing sites to get low-income parents, kids, teens, and seniors cooking.

Program director Emily Geis says she generally encounters three main issues in her work educating people about from-scratch cooking: the perceived cost of fresh foods, time limitations, and lack of know-how. To tackle these hurdles, volunteer instructors guide participants in nutrition and meal planning, as well as the basics and benefits of shopping seasonally, properly storing fruits and vegetables, buying in bulk, and utilizing leftovers to minimize waste. The group also takes a field trip to a grocery store or farmers market to strategize on how to stretch their food dollar.

Each class concludes with making and enjoying a meal together. “That’s the exciting thing,” says Geis. “Our participants are able to see that we made a delicious, filling, healthy meal in less than 45 minutes, and they think to themselves, ‘I could do this at home.’”

But the curriculum is only one essential ingredient in the classes. By sharing their wide range of cooking knowledge and food experiences with each other, participants nourish and empower the whole group.

“Sometimes we’ll have someone who has never cut an onion in their life, and then we’ll have someone else who is seventy years old and been cooking all of her life, who can share her knowledge with the rest of the class,” says Geis. “We meet everybody where they’re at, then work together to learn.”

Join CUESA in honoring Hunger Action Month. Learn more about local hunger issues at our Feeding San Francisco discussion next Tuesday, September 16. Next Saturday, September 20, come to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market for Waste Not, Want Not Day to meet local organizations like Cooking Matters, find out how you can reduce food waste at home, and participate in our fresh produce drive.

Photos courtesy of Leah’s Pantry.

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