Monday, February 9, 2015

Cooking Together Series

February marks the beginning of a brand new Saturday series we are introducing at ALEC, "Cooking Together." 

What is Cooking Together:
Cooking Together is a family and community focused cooking class which will introduce South Pittsburgh residents with a variety of Pittsburgh chefs during an hour long session. The guest chef will teach a simple cooking demo using seasonal vegetables and common ingredients that may be available to Allentown residents, a food desert neighborhood.  
Each chef will present with their child, or a little one in their life, a recipe that they may enjoy together or they have created together as a family. The presentation of an adult/child duo cooking together is to show how easy it is to involve children in the process and how eager they are to be a part of that experience. Children are more apt to try and eat a healthy meal and snacks if they had a hand in the preparation and/or process with important figures in their life.

The Neighborhood:
The Allentown neighborhood, where ALEC (Allentown Learning and Engagement Center) resides, is considered a Pittsburgh food desert. Warrington Avenue, the main road that runs through Allentown, offers a few bodegas and a handful of restaurants to the community with the main grocery source being the Family Dollar.
Many Allentown residents are without access to a car and thus rely what is close and readily available.
+++++Residents may participate Fresh Fridays and the food pantries offered by the Brashear Association, eligible residents may receive fresh produce for their families.  

Through our afterschool programs and summer camps the Brashear Association has been able to offer healthy snack options to Allentown youth. Healthy Eating, Healthy Choices, Healthy Lifestyles is a ingrained trait of our programs as we daily encourage our children to make healthy choices when it comes to food, education, and life.
We have realized that many students who may have turned down carrots a year ago, now readily munch on them for an after school snack. When a new snack is offered we encourage students to "just try it."  The students hear this phrase often and begin to like, or maybe sometimes tolerate, many of the fresh snacks we offer. I attribute this largely to my predecessors as Education Coordinators, for the Brashear Association, who passionately cared about our youth's health.
An estimated 90-95% of our students eat or at least try the fresh produce offered such as carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, edamame and more.

The Stories:
Last summer, through a grant from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, we had the opportunity to offer fresh produce to our students and Allentown neighbors from the amazing people at Common Ground Farms. Our students from the Summer camps were eager to take items home and would 'shop' for items from our little makeshift farm stand. After the students had received their items  we attempted to give away produce to the rest of our neighbors.  Many offers were turned down even when we repeatedly told people it was free produce.  Volunteers went as far as to bag up produce and run it to the cars that were waiting at the red light of Warrington and Arlington, some drivers gladly took the produce while others politely turned it down.

An Allentown resident, and visitor to our adult computer sessions held at ALEC, approached me with a grocery bag last fall.  She asked if I would take the 3 eggplant that she had received a few days previous from the Fresh Fridays distribution and give it to the kids. She had held on to it rather than throwing it out because she didn't want to see food go to waste.  When I asked why she didn't want them, she simply told me "I just don't know what to do with them."  I then rattled off a few ideas and recipes and she just shook her head and stated she would rather the kids take them home.  

The Light Bulb Moment:
This last interaction had me thinking and puzzled for a few days. When I saw her again I asked her "If we showed you what to do with the eggplant through a cooking class, would you come?"  A huge smile spread across her face and quickly nodded her head and told me she would really like that and would tell others about it.
I realized that while we have seen success with spreading the gospel of healthy eating with our students in our programs, we don't always know what they are going home to because those same opportunities need to be afforded to the parents and community as well.  
There is a disconnect between home and our youth programming and that gap needs to be bridged somehow.
We cannot change the fact that we do not have a proper supermarket in Allentown, but we can work with what it available to us through Fresh Fridays and food pantries and aid from amazing volunteers and local chefs that care about the well being of Pittsburgh residents no matter their location or status.

Cooking Together is our attempt to encourage a food revolution in Allentown. We want to not only encourage families to be cooking together but also the community as a whole, choosing healthier options and making healthier choices together.

I felt that it would be appropriate to kick off Cooking Together with Bek Hlavach of Sweet Peaches. Sweet Peaches is a catering company now based in Allentown, right on Warrington Avenue. Bek is a good friend to the program and the neighborhood. She has come in during our summer program to share a pesto recipe for mini pizzas. Check it out and please make plans to attend on Feb 21st and share this opportunity with your family, friends and social media.

You can stay tuned to our facebook, twitter and blog for upcoming guest chefs.


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