Highlights from “Cooking Up Community”: Sustainable Food Center, Austin

Last summer, WhyHunger released our newest capacity building resource for emergency food providers, Cooking Up Community: Nutrition Education in Emergency Food Programs. The response has been fantastic, and has come not only from EFPs, but from people involved in nutrition education in schools, after-school programs, and other venues. We’ve met many new organizations through our outreach for the guide, and now we’re working on profiling some of them for an appendix to come out this spring. We’ll have a sneak peek of one of those next week; today we’re featuring the Cooking Up Community profile of the great nutrition ed program of the Sustainable Food Center in Austin: The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre.

For more profiles and many more resources, check out Cooking Up Community at www.whyhunger.org/cookingupcommunity.

Description: The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre (THK) is the Sustainable Food Center’s cooking and nutrition education program that aids individuals and institutions in making lasting dietary and behavioral changes by offering innovative, theory-based, cost-effective solutions to chronic food and nutrition problems impacting individuals and families in Central Texas.

Nutrition Education Activities: Cooking and Nutrition Education Classes: The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre Cooking and Nutrition Education Classes offer an interactive six-week series of classes, which emphasize the selection and preparation of fresh, seasonal foods that are nutritious, economical, and delicious. The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre also offers Cooking and Nutrition Workshops that last one or two hours. Workshops might include: “Cooking with Seasonal Herbs,” “Soups from Scratch,” “How to Pack a Healthy Lunch,” or “Quick Weeknight Dinners.” Workshops are taught by trained peer Facilitators at various locations around Austin and are offered in English or Spanish.

Facilitator Training Programming: The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre Program uses trained peer Facilitators to deliver its cooking classes and workshops throughout the community. The majority of Facilitators were Happy Kitchen participants who wanted to become more involved with the Program. The Facilitator component of The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre is based on the Public Health Promotora model.

The community health worker, or Promotora, is an informal grassroots worker who provides basic health education, guidance, and referral services to their community. It is based on the popular education model. Promotoras are a trusted broker of communication between the communities in which they reside and the healthcare system. They help to remove cultural and linguistic barriers while implementing health programming and are largely successful and effective. For more, check out the CDC’s Diabetes Public Health Resource.

What Makes Them Unique: Community members teach THK sessions and workshops, rather than someone formally trained in the field of nutrition. The idea of teaching community-to-community is heavily emphasized. Additionally, classes for interested participants are fully bilingual, taught in Spanish or English, and are free, with free groceries included for participants that sign up for their six-week session.

Sustainable Food Center’s mission is to “cultivate a healthy community by strengthening the local food system and improving access to nutritious, affordable food.” THK teaches skills and self-sufficiency in preparing healthy, affordable meals that consist of whole grains, fresh produce, and low-saturated fat ingredients. The program attempts to: 1) affect positive changes in shopping, cooking, eating habits, and nutrition, 2) reduce diet-related diseases, 3) promote the health and development of young children, 4) place emphasis on local, seasonal, and culturally-appropriate foods, and 5) integrate food systems concepts into its curriculum–such as shopping at farmers markets and growing one’s own food.

Joy Casnovsky, The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre Program Director, has been with SFC for four years, having cultivated a genuine interest in the dynamics of food systems in college and while serving abroad in the Peace Corps. Through the years, Casnovsky has seen a dramatic change in the success of THK’s programming. THK initially started with cooking workshops taught in Spanish only; English classes were added based on growing interest. Curriculum was also created by the organization with great emphasis on making lessons in both languages. THK strives to work within the broader food system by using local foods in classes and connecting farmers to consumers at a farmers market hosted by its parent organization. Their nutrition education classes are based on a six-week model in which participants learn about fresh produce, how to read nutrition labels, and nutrition implications when using different ingredients. The cooking class participants are able to go home with the groceries that were used in class, and, upon returning for the next class, are asked about their successes and challenges in preparing these recipes at home. Not only do participants attend class and obtain groceries, they are able to do all this for free! Through grant funding and creative local partnerships, THK is able to provide these materials and groceries within their programming.

The majority of the classes offered are free for low-income participants or for communities suffering from health disparities. THK also offers a growing number of classes that are open to the public for a fee. This ensures that everyone can attend a class in an equitable manner. Additionally, THK offers its services on a contract basis for partnering organizations. The earned revenue from these enterprises is then re-invested in the program in order to provide free programming for those in need.

All courses are held at local venues such as schools, churches, or grocery stores and are heavily community-based. An additional component that strengthens THK’s programming is that “teaching is from the community to the community.” Casnovsky takes pride in the fact that THK’s Facilitators are generally from the community in which they are teaching. Currently, THK has approximately 45 facilitators; one-third of whom are Spanish-speaking, two-thirds English-speaking, and several bilingual. Each class has 15-20 participants and facilitators are expected to spend three to five hours weekly in preparation and teaching the class. Facilitators can opt to receive a stipend for their services or volunteer their time.

Additionally, a post test after the six-week series is given to participants to evaluate what they have learned. Overall, the accessibility of THK’s curriculum and ability to provide fresh foods in conjunction with their six-week series enables participants to apply the skills learned in class at home.


  • THK offers free nutrition education classes that provide groceries for participants to take home.
  • Members of the community who are paid facilitators teach all courses in Spanish and/or English.
  • THK integrates food systems concepts into its curriculum such as shopping at farmers markets and growing one’s own food and creates partnerships with both the agricultural community and academic institutions.
  • THK offers replication trainings for agencies and organizations looking to bring the program to their community.

Jess Powers