I frequently meet people who are involved in nutrition, wellness and culinary education, but few are as passionate as my friend and colleague, Chef Melissa Jones. Her dedication to spreading the message of good health and great taste goes above and beyond the average consumer outreach; she’s devoted her time, her experience and knowledge to helping those who are underserved and in need. Clearly, her selfless work is making a powerful difference in and around the Washington D.C. community.
For those of you seeking nutrition education support in your school or non-profit organization, feel free to contact Melissa at Melissa31Jones@Yahooo.com. Otherwise, enjoy — and be inspired by — today’s guest post. — Tina
My mom was a product of the convenience food movement. She never had anyone to teach her how to cook; she worked outside the home; she didn’t have time to cook, and she didn’t particularly enjoy it, either. As a result, I didn’t see a fresh vegetable until I was in my early teens, though once I did, eating food made from scratch opened up a whole new world for me — and it inspired my profession.
I began my career as an inner city school teacher in Washington D.C. (a position which I held for nearly a decade). I routinely saw kids munching on breakfast that consisted of dried onion rings, cookies, cheese puffs or honey buns, and this sight had a huge impact on me. How could we expect our children to learn what we taught if they weren’t fueling their minds and bodies with nutritious meals?
A few years ago, as the natural food movement began to grow, I noticed that most nutrition education was focused on the well-to-do suburban population and, to a limited extent, schools. However, in the schools where I taught, I saw chefs coming in to demonstrate recipes that involved beets, blood oranges and quinoa. I kept asking myself, “Where will families find quinoa who shop at a bodega?”
Frustrated with the lack of focus on child nutrition education, I changed gears to reacquaint myself with my Johnson & Wales culinary degree, and this led me to develop and conduct cooking classes where I could share my knowledge with others.
Today, my classes are hosted in a variety of locations including an obesity clinic at a local health center, a non-profit where individuals are taking classes to try and earn their GED, and demos at the local farmer’s markets that accept government assistance from shoppers.
Just like my mom, many of my students have never had the opportunity to cook with fresh fruit and vegetables, so I enjoy educating and empowering them. The key to my success? Well, my approach was to create recipes that could be (a) accessible: easy to prepare and easy to modify based on ingredients that could be found at the local grocery store (b) affordable: finding ingredients that were healthful but still fit within a tight budget and (c) accountable: making sure food was authentic and as close to nature as possible.
Additionally, I try to shop at local stores in the neighborhoods where I teach. I include a price breakdown for each recipe, discuss substitutions families can make that don’t strain their budget, and I make recipes in front of the class (with audience participation), so they can see how quick and easy the dishes are. We sample them following the lesson, and the excitement for healthy eating becomes palpable. I’ve also planned field trips to farmer’s markets where they accept WIC, food stamps and other government assistance programs, and while it’s still a challenge to shift eating behaviors and motivate change, it’s worth my time and effort when I achieve success and people respond.
Is my new job tougher than any other I’ve held? Without a doubt. But I believe this is how change starts. This is my community, and I want to do my part to make it a better place.