Learning to Cook at The Teaching Kitchen

A fruit vinaigrette was made out of bruised apples for a rustic fall salad. Nutty, nutritious bulgur substituted for rice.

Alongside baked salmon, that’s part of what was served for lunch when I visited Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in New York City last week. Seated around the table were a bunch of cooks from institutional food providers who were there to learn to cook healthier meals from The Teaching Kitchen at Lenox Hill.

The Teaching Kitchen offers a free nuts-and-bolts food business course to help nonprofit food service staff increase the amount of fresh, healthy, local food they offer. It is designed for places like Head Start programs, senior centers, homeless shelters, and so on. It enables teams of food service directors, chefs, nutritionists, and kitchen staff to convert their programs to farm-to-institution models — without raising costs. Over two days, The Teaching Kitchen provides practical tools to assess and improve four areas: menus and recipes, vendors and ingredients, facilities, and staff development.

Many of the people served by nonprofit institutional food programs are among the poorest and are at risk for chronic disease and other diet-related health conditions. I’ve written before how wrong it is to expect our most food insecure neighbors to subsist on poor-quality food — food that might actually be bad for them. It’s yet another example of how people with the least sometimes get the least.

Transforming existing institutional food programs into centers of healthy food has huge potential. In New York City, these programs serve approximately 250 million meals per year, funded mostly by government programs. Lenox Hill Neighborhood House by itself serves 350,000 meals to low-income New Yorkers through senior centers, a homeless shelter, a Head Start program, an after-school program, a summer camp, and an art-based program for older adults with dementia. After Lenox Hill’s leadership committed to transform its 365-day food service, the staff started small. At first, they made just two changes: fresh broccoli took the place of frozen, and they replaced white potatoes with winter squashes. Most changes came slowly; it took a full year to replace store-bought salad dressing with homemade.

But Lenox Hill has come a long way. Now, the staff make almost everything from scratch and serve more plant-based foods, with smaller meat portions and less salt and sugar. Approximately 90% of their produce is fresh, about one-third of which is locally sourced, and they use regionally grown and milled whole grains.

Lenox Hill staff readily admit that they had lots of missteps, mistakes, and course corrections during their own transformation. Having learned a lot, the time had naturally come to teach. In its work with other institutional food programs, The Teaching Kitchen advises an incremental process and walks participants through a five-step “recipe for success”:

  • Assess all aspects of your program
  • Set attainable short-term goals
  • Implement change slowly
  • Engage staff and clients
  • Repeat!

That sounds like a solid approach to virtually any type of process improvement, food-related or otherwise. Participants receive a step-by-step manual to creating a farm-to-institution program; a site visit to assess their programs; and ongoing technical assistance with change implementation. Over the last few years, The Teaching Kitchen has trained more than 60 organizations that serve roughly 5.5 million meals to low-income clients annually. It is now scaling up further to train nonprofit organizations serving 40 million meals annually to low-income New Yorkers throughout the State.

The cooks being trained last week shared many goals for their own programs: serve less meat, set up a salad bar so clients can make their own, and bake healthier snacks for the seniors during bingo hour. I’m confident they are going to realize all those goals and more. They will make New Yorkers healthier, one meal at a time.

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York Health Foundation
Published in Medium on October 22, 2018