While the students at Pecan Springs Elementary School in east Austin went through their mid-day class routines, eleven women graduated in a small portable classroom beside the playing field. Each woman was called up to the front of the room to receive her diploma. The rest of the class applauded between bites of food.
For the final class, instructor Lorena Cruz taught them to make two dishes: whole wheat penne pasta with tuna, olives, lemon-olive oil dressing, parsley, onions. That meal, using ingredients from the local HEB grocery store, cost $1.48 per serving The other meal was a salmon salad with fresh radishes, celery, parsley, mustard and lemon juice served over corn tortilla or whole wheat pita. It costs $1.09 per serving.
Lorena, has been working for ten years with Sustainable Food Center (SFC) of Austin’s The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre® (THK), a program of community-based healthy, affordable cooking courses. She’s seen hundreds of women graduate with the knowledge and confidence to use easily accessible ingredients to make healthy meals for well under $2 per serving.
Lorena’s husband left Mexico for Texas before she did. He'd call her and say he missed her, of course, but that he really missed her when it was time to eat. She always cooked for the family in Monterey.
When she moved to Austin to be with her husband she didn't speak English. She got her GED with Buen Samaritano, an Episcopal service organization in town. They pointed her to the new cooking classes being offered by SFC. This was over ten years ago. Lorena attended one where she and the other Latina students learned to cook from instructors who only spoke English. They'd show photo cards of ingredients with the names written in Spanish. She said there were a lot of charades in those first classes. Regardless, Lorena learned to speak English and to read American food labels and to cook healthy on a budget.
SFC has been working for over two decades in Austin. The non-profit’s motto sums up their mission: Grow, Share, Prepare. SFC encourages residents to grow their own food by supporting community-entrenched gardening education courses. To share, they work with farmers to streamline connections with local schools, worksites and food service providers. SFC also manages four weekly farmers markets. Finally, THK uses six-week cooking courses, taught by trained community members and facilitators, to provide free instruction in healthy, affordable food preparation for low-income residents.
THK cooking classes comprise the “Prepare” part of SFC’s multi-pronged approach to improving food security. THK focuses on adults, the people buying and preparing the household’s meals, for the most part. Other programs have focused on integrating food and health education among kids and parents. SFC’s USDA Community Food Project grant from 2007 funded a pilot study for middle schoolers, hoping to figure out ways for the students and their parents to cross-pollinate among the numerous facets of SFC’s programming, from gardening to the farmers markets to cooking lessons.
“We found that the middle school age is when the kids are pulling away from parents,” says Joy Casnovsky, THK program director. “It was difficult to get parents involved in a garden or cooking class. After we finished that three-year pilot, we shifted to elementary schools where we saw much more involvement from the parents. If you get a parent involved when the student is in first grade, you have the chance to work with them and their parents for the next five years.”
THK began in the late ‘90s when SFC, along with other social justice organizations and researchers around the country, began to recognize the connection between health-related disease and food security. It was a bit of a rocky start, especially in the Hispanic communities where women like Lorena struggled to understand the English-speaking chefs. SFC recognized the disconnect and eventually shifted the approach to train women like Lorena to become the Facilitators. The new approach proved successful and now Facilitators are compensated with a stipend, though they can also choose to volunteer their time.
The classes took off, mostly by word-of mouth. Lorena has led as many as ten in one year.
Forty-three Facilitators lead twenty-four six-week courses throughout the year, plus numerous one-time classes. The student limit is capped at 25. They are now offered at churches, recreation centers, schools and in the new teaching kitchen at SFC headquarters. The HEB grocery store, a community-involved company, provides funding and offers break rooms for use by the cooking classes. Perhaps most importantly, on the second Saturday of each month, HEB offers free health screenings and they allow SFC to host a table to recruit newcomers to cooking classes. This past year, HEB distributed hundreds of THK flyers at registers. There is now a waiting list for the courses.
The demand has spread into more market-rate populations. Joy and the SFC crew realized a need for fee-based cooking classes ($30-40 range) open to the public. In their modern kitchen space, SFC now offers anything from tamale classes to how to utilize a whole chicken from the farmers market. “We get people who want to sign up for a CSA but they don’t know what to do with all the veggies,” says Joy. “So we have a class for that. It helps the customer prepare healthier food and it brings a new consumer to the farmer. We want to meet people where they are, whether they’re buying from HEB, the farmers market or a food pantry. We just want to help people learn to cook and build that confidence.”
The small classroom behind Pecan Springs Elementary School is ringing with confidence.
Diplomas sit neatly on the tables beside a feast of affordable, eclectically placeless American meals: tuna sandwiches, guacamole, penne pasta salad, salmon salad, whole wheat crackers, pita chips, arroz con leche, cabbage-corn salad. The brightest and most popular dish glistens in a pink, quivering circle. Graduation day is a special occasion and some rules around sugar are bent. The helatina jelly cake commands attention, a national flag planted in the soil of this new land's nutrition revolution.