Midtown Muse

Cooking healthy takes a little know-how, and effort

June 1, 2013 

Here’s a somewhat shameful confession: As I’ve delved into our church’s food ministry, packing and delivering boxes of vittles to neighbors in need, I’ve often looked inside, slightly rankled, and wondered, “How in the world would I feed my family with this stuff?” and “What’s this?”

I’ve imagined episodes of the Food Network’s “Chopped,” where contestants cook from mystery baskets of ingredients. Losers of each round – based on preparation, taste and presentation – get cut from the competition.

Of course, I don’t underestimate the value of any provisions donated by the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle from contributions from grocery stores and North Carolina farmers, who welcome gleaning from their fields after commercial harvests. Every little bit counts.

But, the snob in me still not wholly convinced, I conducted an experiment. I wanted to test the impact of our food donations on families relying on them to meet nutritional demands.

Using only the fresh fruits and vegetables found in the latest box of food the St. Ambrose Episcopal Church Food Ministry packed and delivered to those unable to pick up from the Inter-Faith’s Hoke Street Mobile Market, I set out to make healthy, delicious meals and side dishes. Everything else I already had at home.

It’s the same box I watched more than a hundred people stand in line to get monthly since our distribution changed earlier this year from our church to the Hoke Street Mobile Market.

It’s a place where I also helped distribute grocery bags to market-goers, and logged the number of households and family members served. It’s the place I see the faces that fill Southeast Raleigh’s “food desert” I’ve written about recently.

I see young mothers; moms my age; grandmamas and sisters; fathers; granddaddies and sons; and working folks, retirees and college students.

They are our neighbors largely impacted by the closing of two Kroger stores earlier this year.

They, like us, will benefit from the Southeast Raleigh Farmer’s Market set to open in the old Kroger parking lot on MLK Boulevard.

And they, like all of us, also will benefit from a collective creativity inspired by Voices into Action: A Families, Food and Health Project’s offering of mini-grants for projects that improve access to healthy food and places to exercise.

So, last weekend, combined with meats, herbs and seasonings, and other ingredients already in our pantry, here’s what I was able to prepare, in no particular order:

• Homemade applesauce, served as breakfast and dinner side dishes. And I triple-dipped for a snack.

• Freshly picked, locally grown collards.

• Locally grown romaine lettuce garden salad, dressed with roma tomatoes, red onion, and cucumber.

• Cucumber, roma tomato and red onion salad.

• Fresh fruit salad of apples, mango, oranges and grapes.

• Lamb stew with farm-fresh potatoes, carrots and onions, and homemade broth and chunks of lamb roast.

• Eggplant lasagna, using fresh eggplant, tomato sauce made with roma tomatoes and onions, and stretched and seasoned with pantry tomato paste, chicken broth, fresh herbs and mozzarella.

Voila! Not only did we eat healthy, there was variety – and the exhilarating feeling of cooking creatively. More importantly, we experienced the rhyme and reason behind Inter-Faith’s focus on fresh, nutrient-rich food and making it affordable.

Through its Cooking Matters and Cooking Matters at the Store programs, offered in English and Spanish, Inter-Faith teaches families, children and adults how to shop and prepare foods on a budget, said Jill Brown, Inter-Faith’s director of nutrition programs.

Inter-faith also provides information cards about nutrition, recipes, and how to store and stretch fruits and vegetables at its Mobile Markets. At its Hoke Street location, they work with community members to create urban gardens, and with teenagers to groom the next generation of farmers. Then, there’s its six-acre teaching farm on Tryon Road, where volunteers grow crops, raise chickens and goats, and man a farm stand to sell eggs and produce to support Inter-Faith programs, Brown said.

“Like so many things, the hunger relief effort is a very dynamic effort,” she said. “Being able to produce your own food, even in an urban setting, is the same as being able to print your own money.”

She’s right. Not only does eating healthy food keep us healthier, learning to cultivate our land saves us money.

“But you have to know how to prepare those foods,” Brown said, noting a void of culinary skills and cooking backgrounds compared with just two generations ago. “Teaching people how simple it is to cook, and teaching them to try a variety of foods opens them up to the possibilities.”

ldrwigg@gmail.com

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