New tactic in hunger war

As poverty rises, a preventive approach teaches cooking for nutrition - and budgets.

Tavazia Amaker had been warned: Fresh cranberries are tart, very tart. Still, as instructed by Chef Sarah Copeland, the determined preteen popped the round red berry in her mouth and bit down.

"Ugh!" she said, spitting the berry out in her hand. "That's horrible." Then she grinned and turned back to the stove where Chef Copeland was now demonstrating how to grate orange zest for the cranberry sauce.

Tavazia is taking part in a cooking and nutrition class for mothers and daughters run by City Harvest, New York's leading distributor of emergency food. It's part of a growing nationwide movement designed to take a preventive approach to one of the nation's fastest-growing yet mostly unseen social problems: hunger.

Around the country, nonprofit organizations, food pantries, and soup kitchens are developing creative ways to help working people learn to stretch their food dollars - and get more out of what's already in their cupboards.

This evening's topic is Thanksgiving, and the lesson is that even on holidays, there's a way to make tasty, healthy food on a shoestring.

"It's just learning how to prepare things in a way that doesn't destroy all of that nutritional value," says Hillary Baron, a volunteer nutritionist.

Since last year, when more than 23 million Americans sought help at food pantries and soup kitchens, hunger has jumped 30 percent - and the biggest growth is among working people.

The cause is a combination of the weak economy and the long-term gap between low wages and the increasing cost of living. America's Second Harvest, the nation's leading hunger-relief organization, estimates that more than 40 percent of America's hungry are working people. And children are most at risk.

"It is an extremely serious and easily remediable threat to health and children's ability to learn," says Dr. Deborah Frank, the director of the Grow Clinic for Children at Boston Medical Center.

Dr. Frank contends that a sizable increase in funding for food stamps, along with an overhaul of the bureaucratic food program, could ameliorate the situation in the US. But with the budget deficit, the war on terrorism, and the quiet nature of the current hunger crisis, few experts expect to see that kind of policy change anytime soon.

Enter programs like OperationFrontline, the sponsor of the City Harvest cooking and nutrition class that Tavazia is attending with her mother and two sisters in Spanish Harlem. A volunteer chef and a nutritionist teach ways to use cheap, nutritious foods the women can easily find in their own neighborhoods.

Getting away from fast food

"Low-income people often gravitate toward unhealthy food because it's cheap: Fast food restaurants offer full meals for cents," says Ms. Baron, the nutritionist. "We try to show them that if you put a little more time into it, you can get a really healthy meal that's not very expensive, but that's quick, easy, and tastes good, too."

The idea for OperationFrontline came about nine years ago at Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit aimed at preventing hunger. The organizers decided they wanted to find a way to match chefs and cooks who wanted to volunteer with working families who wanted to learn how to make the most of their resources.

Since then, the idea has kept growing.

Last year OperationFrontline, which is now sponsored by Tyson Foods, held 263 classes nationwide in which 3,286 people participated - a 14 percent jump over the previous year.

"The program grows every year because the need is greater," says Stacy Flanagan, national manager of OperationFrontline.

Tavazia's mother, Lorraine Amaker, works full time as certified nursing assistant in New York. She's raising her three girls on her own and says it's tougher each year to make ends meet.

"It's difficult, but we're doing all right," she says. "I'm not able to cook every day, so we decided to come on in here so we could learn to do it together."

Cuisine with a sense of place

Ms. Amaker's daughter Tierra is the one who likes to cook the most. She's in the kitchen peeling butternut squash for a squash and brown rice soup that Chef Copeland invented for today's class.

Every week, Copelandgoes to the local bodega to see what's available and then designs a menu. Last Thursday the topic was cooking with beans. They made, among other things, quesadillas and salsa.

"It's important to use things that are accessible and affordable," says Copeland. "I wanted to make a mango salsa, but the bodega had only papayas. So we used that."

Tavazia, who'd never tasted a fresh cranberry before today's class, spent much of the nutrition segment watching over the cranberry-orange sauce that was simmering in the kitchen. She kept coming out with spoonfuls to show her mother how it was progressing.

At first, the verdict was still "too bitter." But after about 15 minutes, Tavazia appeared triumphant. The fresh cranberry sauce made with less sugar and more oranges was indeed edible - and far healthier - than canned sauce from the store.

"It's really good," she says, holding up the spoon looking surprised - and satisfied.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.