Food can be healthy, tasty and affordable

Early in June 2019, Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) convened staff from nine Catholic Charities agencies at the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Simple Cooking with Heart Kitchen in Baltimore, Md., to introduce the staff to Healthy for Life® 20 By 20, made possible by Aramark and AHA. The introduction was meant to help Catholic Charities staff oversee the program at their agencies, six of which had already committed to offering the program.

The meeting included an overview of the Healthy for Life community nutrition program by its national lead, Heather Gavras, and a cooking demonstration by Chef Stephanie Rose, AHA’s kitchen manager. The program will be implemented at the six agencies by AmeriCorps members who have been funded through a Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) grant. The AmeriCorps members will be supervised by Catholic Charities staff.

The six agencies committed to offer Healthy for Life through the AmeriCorps program are Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh; Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Santa Rosa; Catholic Charities of Buffalo; Catholic Charities of Louisville, Inc.; Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas; and Catholic Charities Diocese of Camden. Three other agencies participated in the meeting in order to learn more about Healthy for Life: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington (DC); Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington; and Catholic Charities West Virginia.

During the training, Gavras introduced participants to the educational resources, which are designed for social service organizations like Catholic Charities that serve local communities, including low-income and vulnerable populations. She noted the program resources consist of 26 “educational experiences” that cover topics such as “Tasty, Affordable Meals for Busy Families” and “Food Label Smarts.” All topics are available in Spanish.

According to Gavras, an organization like Catholic Charities might offer four educational experiences over a period of two or three months, providing frequent opportunity for clients and other members of the community to participate in the interactive, hands-on workshops. “The Healthy for Life program is aimed at helping individuals change their relationship with food and nutrition to improve their health,” Gavras said. “The educational experiences equip individuals with the knowledge, skills and confidence to discover, choose and prepare healthy food.”

Following Gavras’ instruction came an actual cooking demonstration led by Rose, who teaches how to prepare heart-healthy and budget-friendly meals. Participants moved from the classroom to an adjacent kitchen and donned blue aprons emblazoned with the Simple Cooking with Heart logo. The recipe for the day was chicken paella, which per serving costs $2.39 and contains 380 calories, one gram of saturated fat and 113 milligrams of sodium. For more, information on Healthy for Life including recipes, click here.

Rose said that the group of Catholic Charities staff did a great job at cooking the meal, but they are not her usual students. Most of the people Rose works with are referred to her by doctors, other healthcare providers or social services. Some clients come by word of mouth because they heard that Rose teaches how to cook not only less expensive meals but also tasty ones. But her main goal is clear: “I want to help people cook more healthy food,” Rose said. “And they shouldn’t be intimidated by using different spices and ingredients because healthy food can also taste good.”

The Catholic Charities staff who participated in the daylong meeting and who will be supervising the AmeriCorps members looked forward to bringing the program back to their respective agencies and clients. The kinds of clients who come to Catholic Charities for help with food and nutrition are diverse; it’s not just those struggling with money but includes immigrants unfamiliar with American cuisine and elderly people. Healthy for Life offers equally diverse information such as affordable meal options, cooking with U.S. produce and simple recipes.

Cristina Chillem, program director for the healthy eating program at Catholic Charities Camden, will supervise for the next year two AmeriCorps members who will offer the Healthy for Life curriculum at food pantries in the Camden diocese. The kitchen demonstration gave Chillem confidence that the same kind of instruction can happen at pantries at her agency.

Chillem also liked the communal aspect of the cooking lesson: “It gets people engaged in conversations with each other, and having a hands-on experience gets them engaged with me too instead of just looking at pamphlets.”

Laura Stevens, program director of Common Earth Gardens and Common Table at Catholic Charities of Louisville, thought the entire Healthy for Life curriculum will help guide the AmeriCorps members who will serve at her agency. About the cooking lesson in particular, she said, “Being on the side of a participant and getting to experience the challenges that someone might face on the learning end really helps to identify methods of instruction that might work.”

All agreed that the training was well worth the time involved, especially if the result is people leading healthier lives.