Operation Frontline: Teaching the Needy to Cook

by Sarah Henry on June 22, 2010 · 41 comments

in civil eats,farmers' markets,food organizations,food security,kids & food

A couple of Saturdays ago, on a gorgeous sunny day when many Berkeleysiders were likely heading out for a hike, contemplating another coffee, or barely out of bed, I stopped by a cooking class taught at Ursula Sherman Village on Harrison Street, a transitional living facility for the  homeless in West Berkeley.

Sponsored by Operation Frontline, a national program that offers cooking classes to low-income families, the class of eager kids and interested adults was the final in a free six-week series designed to help people living on a little eat healthy, inexpensive, tasty food.

Starting today, Kitchen on Fire, a cooking school in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, offers their latest round of Operation Frontline classes. This series, serving mostly African American seniors, is full for both participants and volunteers.

Operation Frontline is a program of Share Our Strength, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger.

This January, the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association and Fresh Approach were selected to implement Operation Frontline’s cooking curriculum in the San Francisco Bay Area. “In the six weeks we try to cover a lot of bases — new foods, healthy eating, and how to plan meals,” says PCFMA’s Sarah Nelson, who oversees the program.

What I watched going on that Saturday was inspiring. Yes, inspiring is an overused word. Sorry, that was my takeaway observing a trio of good samaritans, actively engaged in the prepping, cooking, and consuming of nutritious food with families of wee ones. On the menu that day: Freshly squeezed orange juice and make-your-own omeletes chock full of veggies like spinach, squash, and peppers.

So kudos to Johnasies McGraw, Elyssia Schtaklef, and Aaron Hardisty.   “Feeding people is a form of love,” says Kaiser Permanente employee Hardisty, explaining why he volunteers his time. (Kaiser provides grant funds for the classes.) “And I like that this program brings together both the personal and professional parts of my life.”

For recent nutrition graduate Schtaklef, the classes are a way to put her academic training into practice. “I love how the kids are really open to trying new food,” she says. “And how excited they get about making food and eating different dishes.”

Says class chef McGraw, an avid home cook: “This is a no-brainer for me. I love food. I’m interested in food justice and food access issues. It’s a great opportunity to teach people about simple, nutritious ways to eat well.”

And did I mention that volunteers and participants alike look liked they were having a lot of fun making a meal together?

What’s great about the program (aside from the dedicated volunteers, good food, and worthy cause) is that all participants go home armed with a bag of produce to replicate recipes in their own kitchens.

Want to help out? You don’t need to be a pro chef, trained nutritionist, or cooking teacher. An interest in food and an eagerness to help less fortunate folks eat well will stand you in good stead.

You do need to attend a training session and commit to a six-week class (each about four hours per week).

And, of course, along with whipping up delicious food and helping tiny or uncertain hands use a knife, you need to cheerfully do your share of grunt work like washing dishes and cleaning up.

But, I think it’s safe to say, you’ll leave feeling satiated in more ways than one.

For San Francisco Bay Area folks, sign up to volunteer through Operation Frontline. Read the Bay Area Operation Frontline blog or follow the group on Twitter or Facebook.

For readers in other U.S. cities look here to see if Operation Frontline offers classes near you.

And let me know if you could see yourself signing up for this program — or others like it.

This story also appears on Berkeleyside and on Civil Eats.

[Photos: Sarah Nelson]

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl June 22, 2010 at 10:07 am

What a wonderful way to reach kids early and put them and their families on a track for good health!


Sarah Henry June 22, 2010 at 10:18 am

Exactly, Sheryl.


Almost Slowfood June 22, 2010 at 11:19 am

Wow, that’s a fabulous idea for the needy as well as for those who have means. Dan Barber, a chef in NYC says that the root of our food crisis is that we’ve forgotten how to cook for ourselves. Not only don’t we know how to cook, but we don’t know how to avoid waste. Plus, all the processed junk is cheaper. AAaahhh!! Thanks for posting on this initiative. I hope it catches on all over!


Sarah Henry June 22, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Me too, Almost Slowfood.


Frugal Kiwi June 22, 2010 at 12:24 pm

That sounds like an extremely sensible programme. It is amazing how many people don’t know how to cook and pre-prepared meals are going to be more expensive and less healthy. Score one for the That Make A Lot Of Sense Team.


Sarah Henry June 22, 2010 at 12:48 pm

A smart chef told me recently that the only thing that separates cooks from non-cooks is practice. While that may be modest of her — and a somewhat simplistic take on things — it make a lot of sense, too.


Stephanie - Wasabimon June 22, 2010 at 12:53 pm

What a great program! Diana over at http://dianasaurdishes.com makes it a major point in her life to help feed those with not a lot of money as well.


Sarah Henry June 22, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Steph, I didn’t know that about Diana, thanks for sending her link my way.


Susan June 22, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Sarah, sounds like a great program! Here in Boston (Cambridge to be precise), I’ve volunteered on a project called Bread & Jams. Volunteers put together meals with whatever food gets donated and then serve it to a large group of homeless people on Cambridge Commons. There’s also live music (many of the recipients also happen to play instruments), which gives it a fun, festive vibe. I like the creativity of being given 10 pounds of bananas, some flour, and a few other ingredients and figuring out how to turn it into a meal!


Sarah Henry June 22, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Bread & Jams sounds like a wonderful idea, Susan. And what, pray tell, did you make with all those bananas?


Kerry Dexter June 22, 2010 at 2:19 pm

“And did I mention that volunteers and participants alike look liked they were having a lot of fun making a meal together?”
so good to hear this – not only connecting over food, but connecting.


Sarah Henry June 22, 2010 at 5:08 pm

And you don’t have to put down a white linen table cloth to enjoy the pleasures of eating together, as nice as it is to sit at a a well-set table. Connecting over the most human of activities — eating — is, as you note Kerry, such an important social act.


Melanie Haiken June 22, 2010 at 5:08 pm

This sounds like the kind of program we need worldwide; I recently heard about some folks in Puerto Vallarta doing cooking classes for poor families who’ve lost the traditions of eating healthy. Great post!


Sarah Henry June 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm

That Puerto Vallarta program sounds like it’s trying to remedy the loss of culinary culture that Dr. Daphne Miller discusses in her book The Jungle Effect. Thanks for the heads up, Melanie.


Alexandra June 22, 2010 at 5:14 pm

So inspiring! I will pass this info on to my friends in the San Francisco area. Thanks.


Sarah Henry June 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Pleasure, Alexandra. Glad to hear you’ll be spreading the word.


Donna Hull June 23, 2010 at 5:36 am

What a fabulous program. I’m surprised at the number of people in our country who don’t know about simple, healthy cooking. A program to teach low-income families how to cook and eat well should be available in every city.


Sarah Henry June 23, 2010 at 11:03 am

You’re right, Donna, many folks at all ends of the income spectrum haven’t learned how to cook. My sense is that more of these programs are sprouting around the country, though I suspect that demand dramatically outweighs supply.


Luna June 23, 2010 at 9:16 am

I didn’t know about this program, so thank you for sharing. I am delighted to see that it exists and has so many volunteers! This means that people are putting into practice what is being preached.

While it is wonderful to have dialogue on ‘how’, I feel it is much more important, in fact vital, to be active about moving beyond dialogue and into action.

you, lady, absolutely rock.


Sarah Henry June 23, 2010 at 11:04 am

Hi Luna, lovely to see you here. And thanks for your kind words. In my mind, though, the folks who truly rock are featured in this story.


Selena Darrow June 23, 2010 at 11:38 am

Hi Sarah!
I spoke to Cathy Berg, from Share Our Strength, at the IACP Kids in the Kitchen event in Portland about trying to get involved in the Operation Frontline initiative. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I am eager to see what kind of impact we can make in our own communities.


Sarah Henry June 23, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Hi Selena, Nice to see you here. Sorry I missed meeting Cathy Berg at IACP. Next year. Look forward to hearing about what you get started in your community.


Jennifer Margulis June 23, 2010 at 8:31 pm

I’m so impressed with this program. What an amazing concept and what an amazing thing to be doing. Thanks for telling us about it! I needed a feel good story today.


Sarah Henry June 23, 2010 at 10:19 pm

I know what you mean, Jennifer.


Cheryl June 23, 2010 at 9:52 pm

I love it when you spotlight stuff like this. It truly deserves the press.

I recall learning about Operation Frontline in Boston a few years ago but didn’t realize it was a national program. Nice to know Bay Area folks have access to such a worthy series of classes.


Sarah Henry June 23, 2010 at 10:21 pm

My sentiments exactly, Cheryl.


Meredith June 24, 2010 at 7:32 am

Talk about a program that teaches kids that others believe in them and their abilities. Just wonderful.


Sarah Henry June 24, 2010 at 8:14 am

And that people care enough to make sure these kids eat well and learn important life skills.


MarthaAndMe June 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm

This sounds like an AMAZING program. Wish there was something similar in our area.


Sarah Henry June 24, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Remind me again where you are M&Me? Maybe another reader or I can hook you up with a similar program in your neck of the woods.


Melissa Graham September 21, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Share Our Strength has many branches of the Operation Frontline program throughout the U.S. There are also a number of other smaller, local organizations who do similar work. While my Chicago-based organization, Purple Asparagus, works mostly in schools, we do offer cooking classes for parents at many community centers in the city and suburbs.

I truthfully like the fact that OF, like our organization, doesn’t require its volunteers to be chefs as I think that often chefs have a hard time relaying their knowledge and abilities to home cooks.

I saw this, unfortunately, at the highest level, the White House’s Let’s Move website through their Let’s Cook series of videos/meal plans. The first was just a plain disaster calling for hard to find ingredients like smoked paprika, haricots verts and fresh black-eyed peas.

I wrote about it here: http://littlelocavores.blogspot.com/2010/07/maddening-and-irresponsible-meal-plan.html

Thanks for covering this terrific organization.


Sarah Henry September 21, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Hi Melissa, Thanks for weighing in on what’s happening in Chicago with your organization. And for the heads up on the Let’s Cook series, which I must confess I hadn’t yet checked out. Seriously, with the ingredients list? I must go read your post.


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