WASHINGTON — POWDERED milk, canned vegetables, processed cheese, fatty meats, and bland bread: for low-income families, that may be all the cupboards have to offer. It is the job of food stamps and federal food commodities to feed and nourish - but unfortunately, not to entice.
Enter the chef from Citronelle restaurant. Suddenly powdered milk is flavored with spices and added to ground beef for a tastier, more nutritious meatloaf. Canned vegetables are seasoned and sprinkled with cheese to be folded into an exotic vegetable frittata.
An unlikely scene, yes. Gourmet chefs, known for their style and perfectionism, do not cook with such generic ingredients. Unlikely, but logical, asserts Bill Shore, executive director of Share Our Strength (SOS), a Washington-based hunger-relief organization. ``Why not connect those who know the most about food - the chefs - with those who know the least - the hungry?'' he asks.
SOS has done just that, by launching Operation Frontline in Baltimore, Boston, and Washington. Using a creative new approach to nutrition education, the program will draw on the culinary skills of more than 50 chefs in an effort to fight hunger and malnutrition among inner-city families.
Operation Frontline was largely the chefs' idea, according to Mr. Shore. For the past six years, culinary artisans throughout the country have participated in Taste of the Nation, a fund-raising event where chefs showcase their best dishes for patrons who pay a fee to sample the results. But funneling money into hunger relief wasn't enough for many chefs, who wanted to get involved in a ``hands-on way,'' Shore says.
One of them, Nora Pouillon, didn't like the idea that the money she was raising was buying junk foods for malnourished people. Ms. Pouillon, a nutrition-minded chef at Nora's Restaurant in Washington, wanted to work one-on-one with hungry people and change their way of thinking about food and nutrition.
``So many of these people don't know how to cook and have no idea what to do with the food and the money we give them,'' she says. ``They just go in there, buy a can of something, heat it up, and eat it.''
Operation Frontline brings chefs into low-income communities where the participants live. For six weeks, parents will be guided through a comprehensive nutrition education program, including field trips to the local supermarket and lessons in how to make the most of food stamps. Each weekly two-hour session will focus on a particular food group and chefs will stress the importance of incorporating all groups into a well-balanced diet.
The program is not the first to target nutrition education in the fight against hunger. In the 1980s, hunger-relief organizations pounced on the concept, initiating nutrition workshops in public clinics and homeless shelters and sending nutritionists into schools to teach the do's and don'ts of healthy eating.
Unfortunately, enhancing hungry people's knowledge about food hasn't improved their access to it. In 29 major American cities, 82 percent of emergency food facilities are relied on as steady sources of nourishment and 21 percent of those agencies are incapable of responding to people's immediate needs, according to a 1992 study by the US Conference of Mayors Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness.
``There's a danger in assuming hunger is a result of making poor food choices,'' says Ellyn Rosenthal, executive director of the Food and Hunger Hotline in New York. ``It's a result of poverty, and no amount of nutrition education will bring about the end of hunger.''
But SOS claims they've concocted a different kind of program, with the inclusion of the chefs being the key ingredient. Ellen Haas, assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture, agrees. ``Linking SOS and the best chefs will really promote the idea that choosing and cooking food that is healthy is critical to hunger relief,'' she says.
Other programs haven't been successful because nutritionists ``don't know how to make cooking exciting,'' says Morrison-Clark hotel chef Susan McCreight Lindeborg.
``They don't have lives that are totally food like we do, and they can't teach how to make the food taste good,'' she says.
Community workers, who have responded favorably to Operation Frontline, hope the chefs' expert touch will give parents the incentive to learn what a difference healthy cooking can make in their own and their children's lives.
At the Mazique Parent-Child Center in Washington, Ruth Ruecker is placing tremendous confidence in Operation Frontline. She believes nutrition education is capable of reducing hunger as well as preventing low-birth weights and infant mortality. Ms. Ruecker has employed a nutritionist to counsel pregnant mothers for several years but says that having a gourmet chef in the kitchen will add a unique twist to the center's health program.
``Anyone can tell them the proper foods to eat, but chefs know how to make it look good,'' Ruecker says. ``When it comes down to it, it's not what you eat but what it looks like when you eat it.''
Stacey Kennedy, a mother of two, hopes Operation Frontline chefs will teach her how to cook vegetables and meats. She uses food stamps to buy food for her family and tries to draw from all food groups when she cooks. But, ``it usually doesn't work out that way,'' she says.
SOS has taken further steps to ensure success by asking parents what foods they and their children most prefer to eat.
Questionnaires handed out at the Mazique Center found that parents usually feed their children hot dogs, hamburgers, and fried chicken but would like to learn how to make lasagna, to bake bread, and to stir-fry meat and vegetables.
Operation Frontline chefs, after reviewing survey responses, created recipes that cater to the parents' tastebuds but will also promote a healthier, and hopefully less hungry, lifestyle.