Volunteer cooks Harjit Rakra, Sukhbir Sodhi and Devinder Sodhi

Volunteer cooks Harjit Rakra, Sukhbir Sodhi and Devinder Sodhi

Each month, more than 1,000 households benefit from the Food Shelf at the Upper Valley Haven, an on-site source of groceries offered at no cost. Six years ago, the Healthy Eating Program began, which has taken the issue of food accessibility in the Upper Valley and turned it up a notch, adding in the importance of nutrition and a little cooking wisdom.

Jennifer Fontaine, director of Community Services and Operations at the Haven, said in the past, healthier items, especially produce, were left on the shelves, prompting staff to consider how they might get guests to consider healthier choices. People in need can take a week’s worth of groceries each month from the Food Shelf and have unlimited access to breads and produce.

“We emphasize good nutrition, not just any food to keep from feeling hungry, so have worked to acquire fresh produce, dairy, and protein,” Fontaine said. She said the Haven purchases food from a variety of sources including the Vermont Foodbank and local retailers to stock the Food Shelf, but “about 87 percent of the food that is distributed is actually donated or rescued food.”

3-bWhile the Haven promotes nutrition via its Food Shelf, many visitors do not have experience in cooking some of the healthier options offered. “Many of our visitors live in more rural settings where shopping options are limited,” Fontaine explained. “A lack of variety and higher prices govern their diets. Studies have shown that it costs more to eat healthfully, and that is a luxury some of our visitors do not have on their limited incomes.” Fontaine referenced a 2013 Harvard School of Public Health study on the costs of eating healthy (i.e., diets rich in vegetables, fruits, fish, and nuts) versus eating unhealthy (processed foods, meats, and refined grains). The study concluded that a healthy diet is $1.50 more per day, which, when spread over 30 days and for multiple family members, adds up quickly. (More information on the study can be found here www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/healthy-vs-unhealthy-diet-costs-1-50-more.)

The Healthy Eating Program helps community members in need to obtain healthy food and learn how to prepare simple meals with it. Volunteers at the Haven help make this happen through cooking and offering samples every day. “Volunteers come in to the Food Shelf in the morning and choose items that we have an abundance of to create their sample of the day,” Fontaine explained. “Some make up their own recipes, and some search cookbooks or online for recipes.”

Monday through Friday around 10:30 am, volunteer chefs start working on their healthy dish, ready to serve food to Haven visitors between 11:30 am and 12:00 pm. If people like what they try, they can take home a pre-made bag of the necessary ingredients and recipe so they can make it at home. While most of the volunteers do not have professional cooking backgrounds, Fontaine said “a common thread is their love of healthy cooking.”

The preparation of meals is an important element in the Healthy Eating Program. Rather than just offering fresh, seasonal vegetables in the Food Shelf, cooking these foods in front of and for guests of the Haven shows them how to easily incorporate healthy and fresh foods to their diets.

3-c“Walking through the doors you are met with tantalizing aromas — onions or garlic cooking, a good base for a lot of recipes — or sweet spices or savory herbs,” Fontaine said. “Being able to watch food being prepared is a great lure for people. Smelling, seeing, and tasting are a great way to engage people in talking about food and getting them to consider working with and eating featured ingredient.”

Guests have responded positively, according to Fontaine. “People are taking produce that they might not have taken before, things like kohlrabi and patty pan squash, and commenting to us how it’s improved the diversity in their diet,” she said.

“Anyone in need in the community is welcome to shop our Food Shelf,” Fontaine said. “We require minimal demographic information and a few statistical points from visitors, but we do not require people to show proof of need. Our philosophy is to serve people without creating more barriers,” she added. “Anyone is welcome to sample from the Healthy Eating program. On any given day you will see other volunteers, other service providers visiting, and even staff supporting the efforts of the program to encourage our visitors to participate.”

by Meghan Oliver