Lily Bradburn, HOPE’s Local Food Access Coordinator, began hosting monthly cooking workshops designed for low-income community members who are trying eat healthy. This month I got to help design a workshop on cooking grains. (What are grains? I gotchu. Click here.) Why grains? Well, grains are pretty awesome for your health—Harvard says so. And unfortunately, not enough people are eating them. In 2015, 61% of the food Americans bought were highly processed; the best-selling products included refined breads (TIME Health talks about it).
The goal of this specific workshop was to give participants an opportunity to cook, taste, and learn about grains. Ideally, participants would leave the workshop feeling confident with their grain-cooking skills and excited to eat more whole grains and less “fake carbs”. By “fake” I mean carbs that have been overly processed: fiber-stripped, nutrient-stripped, dehydrated, fat-added, salt-added, sugar-added…
I helped prepare materials for the workshop, including a handout with photos of grains we’d be cooking and their health benefits. Alongside visuals and nutritional info on grains, we made instructional cards on how to cook each grain, and included two recipes: Quinoa and Black Beans, and Barley Salad. To further encourage our participants to eat more grains and subsequently less “fake” carbs, we calculated whether Hannafords or the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op was cheaper to buy grains. I was surprised to find that certain grains in the Co-op’s bulk section are cheaper than Hannaford’s options. We also got a cup of each grain (barley, brown rice, quinoa, oats) and instant oatmeal packets we had made for each participant. Essentially, we were giving them quite a few breakfasts and dinners worth of grains.
A total of 9 people signed up, and 5 people showed up at the workshop. 3 participants were HOPE clients, and 2 were involved with Middlebury Co-op’s Food for All program. The evening began with some expected awkwardness, but when we started tasting what each person cooked, I felt a shift occur. People began opening up and joking with each other. Preparing and eating food together (“commensality” as academics call it) builds community. The sharing of meals magically generates a sense of togetherness. Experiencing and witnessing that transition was sort of revelational. I’m super into efficiency and productivity and am always wondering if I’m doing the right thing in the right way. To be honest, I initially doubted the value of this workshop (keep on reading, Lily! It’ll get better). Lily and I spent a week preparing for this 2 hour workshop, and we only served 5 people. A multinational hunger prevention organization might look at our workshop and call it a money- and time-waster. It’s hard to quantify and understand the value of giving marginalized individuals a space that makes them feel welcomed. This workshop provided a level of intimacy that large “efficient” programs can’t do. If we want to build a healthy community, we need to practice looking beyond monetary capital and try to understand social capital–we might not be able to easily measure trust or feelings of acceptance or safety, but building more spaces that achieve these things are critical to a healthier community.