Friday, November 14, 2008

Quality Time in the Kitchen

During the last week of October, Operation Frontline DC started its first ever satellite series with the Bridges Program of Guilford Elementary School. Guilford is located in Howard County, a region not typically served by the Capital Area Food Bank. However, when I joined a meeting formed by a group of enthusiastic and dedicated collaborative entities, my decision to expand the program was easy.

Kris Woodson, the site coordinator, is fabulous and full of energy. She not only found the volunteers to teach the program, she also received a grant to purchase all the food for the course. Our volunteers include: Angel Marchman, a personal chef who owns Thyme Savory; Anna Arrowsmith, a dietitian for Maryland’s Department of Education; and Jennifer Mayer, a community health advocate for Priority Partners. As you can see, the expertise provided by these volunteers is making a huge impact on the participants.

Now, I’m sure you are wondering about the classes! We decided to go with the Side by Side curriculum to promote quality kitchen time between parents and their children. We have seven groups, and I’m thrilled to say that the graduation rate is going to be close to 100%.

If there is any surefire way to get kids to eat new foods, it’s having them participate in the meal-making process. Angel has some great tips for kids in the kitchen. Purchase a lettuce knife, so children can help prepare produce. Use a pizza cutter for cutting fresh herbs. Allow kids to do the mixing, pouring and measuring. You might even get them to help with the dishes-quality time with parents means a lot to kids. Most importantly, be patient and enthusiastic about spending time with your children.

Over the course, we have made two-bean chili, eggplant Parmesan, scalloped cauliflower and mushrooms, smoothies, pineapple salsa and hummus. To get into the holiday spirit, we are going to combine our nutrition lesson about breakfast with the recipe next week. Our menu includes pumpkin pancakes with a homemade apple syrup. We talked about pumpkin muffins as an alternative, but those just seemed too typical. These kids want the challenge of creating something adventurous!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Who Knew Greens Could Taste so Good?

I'm serious about the title to this entry. I'm not a greens eater. Never grew up eating greens. I know some of you are now asking yourselves what kind of mother I had. Kind of funny actually because my mother is a very healthy cook. However, now that I'm older (and I'd like to think I have an up-and-coming sophisticated palate), I am trying new foods with gusto. When one of our volunteers, Lauren, decided to showcase greens a few weeks ago, I was all for it.

Greens are in season during the spring and fall when the weather is a little bit cooler. You can make this recipe with greens from the farmers’ market, the fresh produce aisle, or from bagged greens. We recently combined two different recipes and a touch of our own flair to make a fabulous greens dish. During class we didn’t use a recipe, but we estimated ingredient quantities below. I hope the flavors will blend as well as they did the first time, so all you professed greens haters will have a change of mind.

Ideally we would use local fresh greens as an inexpensive and sustainable practice. However, we decided to go with the bagged version for the sake of saving time in class.

Here is our "test kitchen" recipe for Sweet and Savory Cooking Greens:

1 9oz bag spinach*
1 16oz bag kale*
1 16oz bag collard greens*
1 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
3 small apples, diced
½ cup of Crasins
Salt to taste

1. Bring approximately 2 quarts of water to a boil in a dutch oven or soup pot.
2. Add kale and collard greens to boiling water and cook for approximately 20 minutes or to your preferred doneness.
3. While greens are cooking, cut and sauté onion in olive oil for 3-4 minutes.
4. Add spinach to onion and cook until wilted.
5. Drain kale and collard greens from water.
6. In a large bowl, mix cooked greens, spinach, onion, apples, apple cider vinegar, and Crasins.
7. Stir well. Serve and enjoy!

*Any combination of greens will work well. Additionally, non-packaged greens may be used; chop and wash before cooking.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Making Education Come to Life

By Angela Leone, Operation Frontline Assistant Coordinator, AmeriCorps National Direct

I first learned about Operation Frontline in 2005 when I was exploring career paths. From that moment I knew I wanted to be involved with Operation Frontline either as an AmeriCorps member or a future volunteer.

Flash forward. In May 2008 I graduated from Indiana University with an M.S. in Nutrition Science. The opportunity to work for Operation Frontline presented itself, and I jumped at it as quickly as I could! What a perfect way to utilize my degree while gaining immeasurable experience in community nutrition! If all goes as planned, next year I will start my dietetic internship to become a Registered Dietitian (RD)

I’m four weeks and seven classes into my new position, and I couldn’t be more excited about this job! The highlight of working with OFL is getting to know the participants and volunteers.

Last week, at a long term transition home, a discussion of fruits and vegetables took front stage followed by a discussion of sugar. New and favorite vegetables were cut up by participants, roasted, and then piled onto whole wheat pitas for a new take on quick and healthy pizza. During the sugar discussion, participants guessed how many teaspoons of sugar were present in a can of soda. One participant measured sugar, by the teaspoon, into a cup. Once she reached the equivalent of 40 grams of sugar, equal to 10 teaspoons, she stopped to view the sugar. It was indeed a powerful visual! No one was interested in drinking soda, at least for that night.

At a senior citizen center last week we made barley jambalaya and it was delicious. At the end of the session I was chatting with one participant and asked her opinion on the dish. She'd never tasted barely before, but loved it so much that she couldn’t wait to make it for her husband! I am looking forward to seeing her this coming week to find out what her husband thought of the new grain.

Each week we hear stories. see lightbulbs go off and explore new recipes. In an effort to utilize this great resource more, Becky and I will attempt to provide you all with a mini story or tasty recipe each week. You will still get specific updates about classes from time to time and details about conferences and events. However, the quick updates are easier for us and really more meaningful too.

It's almost time for some butternut squash soup, so get that cooking imagination started, and we'll be back soon.

Friday, August 8, 2008

It's Time to Say Goodbye

I think it’s only fitting that we say goodbye and good luck to Ona on the Blog she created. Ona, a true Blogger at heart and an avid reader of all Blogs related to cooking, came up with the idea to make an Operation Frontline Blog a few months ago. Though I was admittedly skeptical at the onset, I soon realized what a great tool Blogs can be for a program. Blogging allow us, most importantly, to share our experiences with the world. But, it is also an avenue for discussion, photo sharing and cataloging our fond memories of Operation Frontline.

Though I have always enjoyed my work with Operation Frontline, before Ona joined the Capital Area Food Bank staff, I must admit, many days were stressful. Running all facets of a program takes a toll on any individual. Not to mention, as much as I wanted to improve and expand the program, there wasn’t time to do so.

Then entered Ona. Relaxed. Passionate. Focused. Creative. Outgoing. Though Ona was an Americorps member, getting paid a shockingly small stipend, she worked long hours without complaint. Our schedules were often crazy, but throughout, Ona kept a smile on her face. She touched the lives of many participants, from kids to senior adults, during this year of service. She impacted and inspired me too. Life has been calmer with Ona around. Life has been more fun with Ona around. We were a true team from the get-go, challenging and supporting one another always.

When someone comes into a job and exceeds expectations, it is inevitably hard to see that individual leave. For Ona, that time is now. At 5pm today, Ona will officially be finished with her year of service to Operation Frontline.

I’m happy to say that Ona has found another position with a well-established nutrition policy organization. She will put her experience with Operation Frontline and her passion for policy to good use.

To you Ona, thanks for your dedication, ambition and friendship. Keep me accountable for updating this Blog, and send me local chef news from time to time. I’m sure we’ll be seeing one another soon at an Operation Frontline series (yes, she has offered to continue as a volunteer!) or at one of our market pot luck meals.

You’re the best! We’ll surely miss you around the Capital Area Food Bank.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Putting the Market into the Food

by Ona Balkus, Operation Frontline DC Assistant Coordinator, Americorps VISTA

In the remarkably pleasant weather on Saturday (a cool breeze during DC July is an invaluable resource), Eric, Betina, and I headed down to the Ward 8 Farmer’s Market for the 3rd class of this series.

If I was asked to design a theoretically perfect Operation Frontline class, the concept of this one would come pretty close. In addition to the effective, easy to follow curriculum that we work with in most classes, we are able to incorporate fresh produce from the farmers into all of our classes. Not surprisingly, the produce is reliably fresher, tastier, pesticide-free, and does not carry the threat of food borne illnesses.

If that wasn’t enough to convince people, it’s cheaper! Not to say everyone should run out to the Dupont market to save money, but these farmers in Ward 8 keep their prices very reasonable to accommodate the neighborhood residents. Instead of a take-home bag of food from a grocery store, participants receive $10 vouchers for the farmers’ market, which they can use after class to either purchase produce we cooked with that day, or anything else that suits their palette.

Like most great ideas, “in theory” and “in practice” end up taking drastically different forms. Like most optimistic hard workers, we adapt to the challenges and do the best we can. The first two classes had pretty measly turnouts, with three people at each class (no, not the same three.) This class was set to be the last effort unless more people came, and what should appear but 7 engaged, interested participants! So, we’ve decided to push on and continue with the classes.

Even if we don’t have a consistent group, people are still enjoying these classes, trying new foods, and spending a couple of hours on a Saturday morning thinking about how their food choices can affect their health, their families’ health, and in this case, their local economy and food system. Sounds like a good way to spend the weekend…

Enough from me! I’ll let Eric, our wonderful chef volunteer, give you more insight into the class:

Eric Hoffman is volunteering with Operation Frontline this summer while he interns at Food and Water Watch in Washington, DC. He will be moving to Tucson in the fall as a Congressional Hunger Fellow. While working on an organic farm for the past year, Eric gained knowledge and passion for sustainable food systems and hunger relief. He brings this experience as well as an infectious enthusiasm to his service with Operation Frontline. You can visit Eric's blog at

Saturday was the third Operation Frontline class and we focused on protein and dairy. The nutritionist, Suzie, from the first two lessons moved out of state so Ona, the program’s assistant coordinator has taken the reigns for the last few classes. For the first half of the class, we discussed the benefits of low-fat proteins and meat alternatives.

Ona conducted a powerful demonstration in which participants were given a sheet with the typical McDonalds and Chipotle menu with the total amount of fat and calories per meal. She then asked people to count the amount of fat they would get from a meal at these restaurants. The amount of fat from a cheeseburger, small fry, and an apple pie were scooped onto a piece of bread in the form of Crisco to show visually just how much fat is in fast food. In the end, there were 13 scoops of Crisco in this “fatty patty.” Everyone in the class seemed disgusted and I heard a few people mention how they would think twice before going to a fast food restaurant again.

For the cooking portion of the class we decided to make breakfast burritos and yogurt parfaits. We received fresh tomato, onion, and pepper from the farmers market for the burritos and blueberries (the best blueberries I have ever had probably!) and blackberries. The recipes are below:

Breakfast Burrito
2 eggs
2 tbsp milk (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1/4 red onion
1/2 tomato, chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil or butter or margarine
1/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
fresh cilantro
1 flour tortilla

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs together with the milk until well beaten and season with salt,pepper, and cumin.

Heat the oil or butter in a skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat. Saute the pepper,onion, and tomato on medium heat for 5 minutes. Carefully add the eggs. Cook, mixing frequently, until you have scrambled eggs of the desired consistency.

Place the scrambled eggs in the center of the flour tortilla, and top with cheese.

After cooking the eggs, we had the class come up and top the egg & veggies with cheese and salsa. I found this nifty guide online to show the “proper” burrito folding technique at (the best part is the fact that someone actually bought the domain name for this…) The burritos were tasty and way better for you than a regular burrito at Chipotle!

Yogurt Parfait
2 C vanilla yogurt
1 C granola
1 C fresh berries (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries) or peaches

In a large glass or clear plastic cup, layer 1/2 of yogurt, 1/4 C granola, and 1/4 C fruit. Repeat layers

We used half vanilla yogurt and half plain yogurt mixed together, which cut the amount of sugar in half while keeping most of the sweetness. The class came up to the table to put together their own parfaits, which was fun!

The class had decent turnout and we decided to continue with the program for the last two weeks. Next Saturday will be healthy snacks!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

No-Cook Summer Kitchen

Lily Martinez is interning with Operation Frontline DC this summer. In the fall, she will begin her senior year at American University where she majors in Health Promotion.

Yesterday I went with Ona to assist with a demo class at a night shelter for the homeless in northwest DC. These participants, all women in their 40s and 50s, are currently making the transition out of homelessness. The site coordinator told us that one of the conditions of this program is that the women must be involved in some activity that promotes their ability to function successfully once they are ready to leave the shelter. This activity could range from a class focused on budgeting to one that teaches individuals how to manage spiritual, emotional, or physical health (like an Operation Frontline class).

About ten women participated in the demo and throughout the two hours they were lively and engaged in both the discussion and cooking activities. They offered their opinions, suggestions, and questions, which ranged from what’s a serving of avocado to if soy cheese is healthy. Using the information they learned about food groups and serving sizes from the overview of My Pyramid, they completed a meal planning activity where we collaborated to create a day’s meal plan that met all of the USDA’s recommended daily requirements.

The theme of the demo was healthy snacking, which is something that can be helpful for anyone to learn, especially since unhealthy snack foods can be quite tempting. Since these participants are currently provided with dinner but are on their own for snacks, it was a particularly appropriate lesson for now and in the future when they leave.

The two snacks that we made were a fresh salsa-avocado wrap using whole-wheat tortillas and a yogurt parfait with seasonal fruits (strawberries, grapes, and mango) and low-fat, low-sugar granola. The women were eager to help in any way that they could (some of them even offered to wash dishes!) Each participant contributed to the dishes, cutting tomatoes, peppers, and onions for the salsa, and then slicing the fruit and assembling their own parfaits. To top it all off, they were all excited to try the snacks and most of them thoroughly enjoyed them.

While this site provides a cooking class to its residents, they currently do not have a program that combines cooking with nutrition education. We look forward to working with them again soon, hopefully in a full Operation Frontline series.

Fresh Salsa


2 large tomatoes, chopped (or 1 14.5 oz. can chopped tomatoes)
1 Jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 green or red bell pepper, chopped
½ red onion, chopped
1 Tbs fresh cilantro, chopped
1 Tbs cider vinegar or lime juice


  1. Combine all ingredients in large bowl.
  2. Let sit for at least 20 minutes for vegetables to absorb flavors.
  3. Enjoy with tortilla chips, in a wrap, or as a sauce for meat or fish!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Learning New Lessons

by Ona Balkus, Operation Frontline DC Assistant Coordinator, Americorps VISTA

Last week, we celebrated the graduation of a Side by Side class series, which brings parents and their children together in the kitchen and classroom. This class presented some unique challenges for both me and the wonderful volunteer team with whom I worked. Scott, Liza, Heather, and I were all trying out the Side by Side curriculum for the first time, since it was our first in DC!
Assembling mini-turkey burgers for graduation party

I had sought the advice of Operation Frontline staff in other cities, and the challenges they had experienced definitely rang true in this series. Structuring a class so that both the adults and children are engaged is extremely difficult. With 12 children and 2-3 parents in this series, catering anything towards the adults was near impossible. The volunteers met the challenge though, learning from each class and trying new activities for the next.

Our volunteer chef, Scott, gave the adults more challenging chopping tasks, teaching them how to more easily cut onions, mangoes, and cantaloupe. While the parents chopped, the kids cut strawberries with butter knives and rolled oatmeal cookie dough into small balls. Our volunteer nutritionist, Liza, had separate discussions with the parents about modeling food behavior by trying new things and eating well, and also led activities where the parents and children worked together to brainstorm about healthy meals and snacking.

One of the most successful lessons came in class #3, when we had each family make their own personal pizza, rolling out home-made whole wheat dough (thanks to Scott’s prep work) and using a variety of sautéed and roasted vegetables. The children whose parents couldn’t attend the class had help from the volunteers. The kids loved pushing out the dough, and since they had helped chop the vegetables, were the first to add them on to the pizza. The parents looked pretty surprised as their kids piled on the mushrooms and peppers!

For the graduation lesson, Liza led a jeopardy game with the adults and kids. As I suspected, some participants had absorbed more than others in terms of nutrition information. But when the graduation party food came out, many participants showed that they had learned another important lesson: to have an open mind about new foods and tastes. Many kids tried guacamole on their salmon cakes, and one boy asked for thirds of the black bean and corn salsa.

Scott making fresh fruit popsicles with the kids

Big congratulations to the young participants of this series, who graduated from Operation Frontline and also their current grade at school last week. They were a caring, good-natured, if not a little rowdy, group of kids that were very hard to say goodbye to. All our best to them and their families!
I usually don’t love canned salmon, but these were delicious. Thanks, Scott! (And Trader Joe’s for stocking a non-fishy canned salmon!)
Yield: 35 2 oz cakes

1 Egg
1 cup Mayonnaise
2 tbsp Whole Grain Mustard
1 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
2 tbsp Old Bay
1 tbsp Curry powder
1 ½ cup Scallions, sliced
1 Red Bell Pepper, diced, small (optional)
1 cup Parsley, chopped
½ cup breadcrumbs
2 cans Salmon, drained well
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Pan spray


  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Combine everything in a mixing bowl except salmon and breadcrumbs.
  3. Gently fold in salmon, careful not to break up the meat too much.
  4. Fold in breadcrumbs enough so that the mixture is tight.
  5. Cook small piece in sauté pan and taste. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
  6. Form into 2 ounce cakes, and place on oiled baking sheet 2” apart.
  7. Lightly spray cakes with pan spray.
  8. Bake for 12 minutes, remove from oven, flip cakes, and bake for 5 minutes more, until firm and hot throughout.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Where to Start

by Ona Balkus, Operation Frontline DC Assistant Coordinator, Americorps VISTA

Last week, the Washington Post ran a series of articles entitled: “Young Lives at Risk: Our Overweight Children”, highlighting the child obesity epidemic that is causing disease, and in some cases death, for many of our nation’s children. I was impressed and touched by the Post writers’ insight, focus, and sensitivity regarding the issue. The personal profiles of young people in the DC area such as David Quiroz, 12, who last fall weighed 215 pounds, were the most effective stories for me, as we heard from local communities about their fear when a child’s weight hinders his or her well-being. David, a determined young man, struggles every day to resist the unhealthy foods that penetrate his school and community.

When we hold an Operation Frontline class for parents, they often talk about their children’s weight as something they would like to control but don’t understand how they can improve their family’s food routines. Comparisons to their own childhood and confusion about how this epidemic has evolved run rampant. And it’s true—we all ate candy and cookies when we were young (many more of us also had access to safe playgrounds and streets). Parents also feel the pulls of a basic instinct: to nourish and show love for their children by providing the foods that their children demand. When a family is low-income, the need to provide nourishment for one’s children is in jeopardy, and can entail more consumption of high calorie, unhealthy, inexpensive foods. Food brings the family together, a bright point in daily lives otherwise strained by costly bills and unsafe neighborhoods.

Veronica Gray, the guardian of a young woman struggling with her weight, conveys this feeling in one Post article. "We're not big drinkers or big smokers, but we have food… That's the joy; that's the good feeling. Food is comforting. But in the long run, it is only hurting us."

I enjoyed the glimpses of progress that the Post writers documented, such as the principal in Columbia Heights who has pledged to lose 100 lbs. over the course of the school year as a symbolic figure for a school-wide effort to become healthier. This type of personal behavior change is a valuable component of the fight against childhood obesity. Having watched the changes that Operation Frontline participants make, I can attest to the power of information and intention.

However, the Post series also affirms the need for larger, systemic improvements in our national food system. Even with education and a will to change, parents are still raising a generation of children awash in junk food commercials, afraid to play outside, cut off from sufficient P.E. classes and relying on vending machines as their main food source at school. This needs to be a policy priority in all levels of government through a variety of means, including education, marketing, food subsidies, and financial aid.

Washington Post “Facts You Should Know” #5: “Only 2 percent of U.S. children eat a healthy diet as defined by the USDA.

Thank you to the Washington Post for starting this long-overdue conversation.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Playing with our food!

by Becky Handforth, Operation Frontline DC Coordinator

Last week we decided to mix up class a bit. Instead of planning recipes to teach the participants, we had the participants choose what they wanted to make. I collaborated with Kaitlin, our volunteer chef, to pick a variety of ingredients that would function for numerous recipes. The theme: breakfast.

First, we split into two groups. With some brainstorming help from our volunteers, Kaitlin, Sapna, and Ellen, the participants decided to make breakfast burritos, fruit salad and muffins.

Ellen worked with the burrito group. They decided to make the burritos with peppers, mushrooms, onions, broccoli, garlic, cheese, sausage and of course, eggs. We have used cumin frequently in the series, so the participants decided to add a hint of that to the egg medley too. The funniest part of the evening was when the participants found out the sausage was actually a vegetarian variety. While they were cooking, Ellen told the participants it was turkey sausage, which was an honest mistake. It wasn’t until they were eating the burritos that I happened to mention it was made of soy. Despite the fact that they were a bit weirded out by the thought of eating soy sausage, they still enjoyed the flavor of the burritos. Even our pickiest participant ate a burrito...her first taste of Operation Frontline food and a big accomplishment for us!

The other group was in charge of the fruit salad and the muffins. We only had a recipe for pumpkin muffins, which the participants didn’t want to make. So Kaitlin, being a true Operation Frontline volunteer, was flexible! Using the pumpkin muffin recipe as a guide, we took what we had on hand to make what I like to call experimental muffins. As you all know, baking takes precision. But along with a dash of faith, we added lemon yogurt, applesauce, bananas, raisins, strawberries and almonds to the bowl of basic ingredients. Kind of crazy, but the muffins actually turned out well. All of us, volunteers and participants, were proud of our recipe’s success. Amidst all the excitement of muffin experimentation, I forgot to take photos! Of course, I’m regretting that now.

Ever since that class, I’ve been debating whether or not we just had good luck or if our strawberry banana muffins might actually be something worth repeating. If anyone wants to test it out for us, please take a stab at our “recipe” and let us know what happens. Here is the approximation of what we put in the muffins along with some side notes:

Strawberry Banana Muffins

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar (I would love to cut this down)

1 ½ tsp baking powder

1/8 tsp salt

1 ½ tsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

1 large egg white

½ cup applesauce

2/3 cup low-fat lemon yogurt

3 Tbsp canola oil

½ tsp vanilla extract

1 banana sliced

1 cup strawberries sliced

1/4 of raisins (omit if you think adding them is too weird)

¼ cup slivered almonds


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease muffin tins with cooking spray or butter.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.

3. Combine egg white, applesauce, yogurt, canola oil, and vanilla in medium bowl and mix well.

4. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Do not over mix!

5. Gently stir in banana, strawberries, raisins and almonds.

6. Bake muffins for 25-30 minutes, until muffin tops are lightly browned.

7. Cool and Enjoy!

Tonight is our graduation celebration! Throughout the series, this group has mentioned traditional southern food such as greens, mashed potatoes, cornbread, fried chicken and pie as their favorite cuisine. So, we’ve decided to create a “down home cookin’” night. The feast will include flaky baked “fried” chicken (still using chicken but not frying it), sesame collard greens, cornbread and berry cobbler. I don’t know about you, but my mouth is watering.

It’s true that Operation Frontline emphasizes being open-minded about trying new foods, but it is fun to show participants how to put a healthy twist on their favorite recipes too.

Time to run to class!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Navigating the sea of American food

by Ona Balkus
Assistant Coordinator of Operation Frontline DC, Americorps VISTA

Amid children running around our feet and three languages being spoken in this small living room turned classroom, we discuss with these mothers how they can feed their families and themselves better in a new country. At Parklawn Family Center, we are working with women from El Salvador, Ethiopia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Nepal, among others. Rachel, the amazing site coordinator, watches the children, while our invaluable translator Maggie enables the Spanish-speaking women to participate in the discussion.

The women have noticed their children gaining weight, and have heard that enticing American foods like brightly colored “fruit” drinks, **cartoon-clad yogurt containers, and a 30 foot long cereal aisle might be the culprits. Hearing these women’s stories, I am continually struck with questions: Why should shopping for food be so hard? If you walk into a store with the intention of buying yogurt, meat, bread, and fruit juice for your family, why is it possible that you can leave with piles of sugar and oils in your cart while believing you have found all that you were looking for?

The answers to these questions are multi-faceted, and while I am starting to form some opinions, I can’t point fingers or prescribe solutions just yet. What I can assert is that as the American food system stands now, Operation Frontline’s approach to educate people on cooking and nutrition creates positive, visible change. It’s our mission and passion to empower participants like these women to make better choices about food. We teach them how to read the nutrition facts behind the cartoon characters and the unit prices under the pre-sliced vegetables, with the goal that the next time they are at the supermarket, they leave the store with healthier food and a comparable, if not lower, grocery bill.

Of course, the food should also taste good, which is where Remke comes in. Our tireless chef volunteer has shown them pita pizzas, vegetarian chili, and in this fourth class, a roasted vegetable pasta with a “cream sauce” made of Greek yogurt and parmesan cheese. We eat well here!

During the fifth class, which takes place at the grocery store, the women can put their new skills into practice. First, we tour the grocery store, talking about unit pricing and comparing nutrition information on the back of food containers. The women compare saturated fat content, sodium, and fiber in the products they like. Price increases for convenient food packaging are also notable, such as pre-chopped broccoli versus an entire head or prepared BBQ chickens versus whole raw chickens. It’s important to identify when you are willing to pay for convenience and why you are paying more.

Afterwards the participants receive $10 giftcards to shop for healthy meal ingredients or snacks. I feel a little like a food cop, sending one woman back into the aisles to return the Oreos to the shelf after we look over the nutrition facts together. But when she comes back with a bag full of bananas (on her own accord!), I feel gratified. Each woman walks away with a heaping bag full of healthy food, as well as new detective skills they can use next time they shop.

The grocery store class is always a little sad for me too, as I see the looks of frustration on some participants’ faces as they discover the hidden sugars and fats in their childen’s favorite foods. I am definitely the bearer of bad news, but I hope they can forgive me for it. It frustrates me too that I have to teach these things; that a well-intentioned person can’t walk into a grocery store and leave with nutritious foods that will sustain her family. But with the lessons learned and changes made after this class, I hope these women can navigate the terrain of this new country a little bit better, sharing their new knowledge with friends and families.

** A 4 ounce container of Trix Yoplait Strawberry yogurt provides only 10% of one’s daily value of calcium (1/3 of the calcium in a normal serving of plain yogurt).
It also provides 17g of sugar, which is equal to 4 teaspoons of sugar.
Add cinnamon and brown sugar or lemon juice and honey to plain yogurt—it’s delicious!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Our Film Debut!

by Ona Balkus

Operation Frontline Assistant Coordinator, Americorps VISTA

A couple of months ago, a group of students from Georgetown University contacted us about making a documentary on Operation Frontline DC for their class Social Justice Documentary. At first we were slightly wary. The logistics of getting media releases for our participants seemed daunting, not to mention fitting a camera crew into the small kitchens already full of volunteers and participants cooking together. As it turned out, like most things, nothing worthwhile is easy.

The product of this group’s hard work is simply amazing. The documentary looks professionally done, with artistic shots, steady camera work, and even a customized musical score. The untiring efforts of these students throughout the filming process, from waiting for late interviewees to convincing a protective principle to let the cameras into the after school program, was so impressive. Most importantly, the group’s sincere intentions to portray our program accurately and the participants respectfully really showed, with a final product that in 10 minutes gets to the core of what Operation Frontline DC is all about.

We plan on using the video for volunteer orientations, trainings, new site visits, and general marketing of the Operation Frontline program. Honestly, we’ll probably show it to anyone we can corner for 10 minutes! We are so grateful to this fine film crew, which includes:

Luke Hillman, Editor
Danielle Thomas, Director
Regina Moore, Producer
Anastasia Doherty, Writer

You all are the best!

Another special thanks to our chefs, Remke and Scott, our participant, Helene, our “dairy godmother” Janet, and the participants of Mazique Family and Child Center and Drew Model school for participating in the video.

You can watch the video and also read more about the documentary project at:

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Hard-Earned Celebration

This is OFL Coordinator Becky Handforth's blog debut. Becky will surely be contributing to our blog regularly. In this first post, she reflects on a recent graduation class.

Some days work doesn’t seem at all like work. It seems too fun, too fulfilling, too inspiring to be called a job. One of those days was Monday.

The culmination of every Operation Frontline series is a graduation day, during which we celebrate six weeks of learning, friendships and dedication. Throughout each Eating Right adult series, we provide participants with healthy ingredients so they can recreate in-class recipes for their families. The hope is that by the end of the series, the participants will have honed some new cooking skills and will be more apt to incorporate healthier meals into their lives. This series was no exception. We decided to have pot luck on graduation day so the participants could display their cultural backgrounds and kitchen confidence.

One thing I must mention about this series is that the cultures were abundant. Including the volunteers, we had individuals from Holland, Nigeria, El Salvador, Ethiopia and the United States, along with two avid travelers (Ona and meJ). Three languages were spoken each week-a tricky feat. The participants were surprisingly open to trying new foods, which made the class feel successful from day one. We prepared everything from apple crisp to beet soup to pasta carbonara with yogurt.

On Monday, we had a joyous time playing MyPyramid Bingo, partaking in various home-made foods, and conducting our own mini graduation ceremony.
Despite the fact that I ate a small lunch earlier in the day, I found room inside my stomach to eat another plate full of fruit salad, mashed butternut squash, coconut rice, chicken tamales, fresh bread, Ethiopian inspired lentils and vegetables and injera. What a feast!

I wish you could meet all the participants because describing a few of them here doesn’t begin to point out the obvious…they were great!
One lady came more than an hour each week with her toddler son to attend the classes. Another woman called the day of our grocery class to say she wouldn’t be able to attend because she had delivered her baby that morning. We had a teenage mother participate faithfully for all six weeks, even though she does not cook a lot just yet. By graduation, this mother had also returned to high school to finish her studies.

Our one male participant works in the kitchen at the site, cooking nutritious, culturally diverse meals for the kids who attend daycare. In between his chef position and his second job, he attended the classes and helped us navigate the kitchen. Our Ethiopian women were truly open-minded. A lot of the food we cooked was very different from their traditional fare, yet they always showed interest in the kitchen and tasted every meal we created.

Today at a department lunch, we were asked to share our highs and lows from the past week.
The first thing that came to my mind was this graduation class. My job is always interesting and high-energy, but on Monday my job suddenly became a celebration with friends. I hope I relish this moment for weeks to come.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A New Endeavor

by Ona Balkus
Operation Frontline Assistant Coordinator, Americorps VISTA

I am a strong believer in making your work fun, and making what’s fun your work. Identify your strengths, interests, and passions, and then use them to improve the world and your community. With all my 23 years of experience in living, this seems like the secret to not only personal happiness, but societal progress as well. So when I graduated from college last spring, I wanted to find a way to combine my interest in children’s health and my passion for cooking, while also trying to avoid pushing papers in the office of a large organization. Whether it was luck or some other force of nature, I found Operation Frontline early in the job search, which turned out to fit the bill exactly.

A self-described “groundbreaking nutrition education program,” Operation Frontline lives up to this description, working to alleviate hunger with hands-on cooking and nutrition classes for low-income communities throughout the country. Going into communities with little access to fresh produce, fast food franchises on every corner, and soaring obesity rates, Operation Frontline teaches the knowledge that can empower people to make healthier, thriftier food choices. The cornerstone of the program is the group of volunteer chefs and nutritionists who give their time to teach the classes: an amazing group of people that I will laud throughout this blog.Created by Share Our Strength, Operation Frontline’s concept and curricula are comprehensive, effective, and make for a fun learning environment for both volunteers and participants. In D.C., the Capital Area Food Bank hosts Operation Frontline, providing offices, food, resources, and a multitude of intelligent, compassionate coworkers.

I was enchanted with the program, the cover letter wrote itself, and in early August I started my Americorps VISTA year of service as the OFL Assistant Coordinator in Washington, D.C. With the guidance and friendship of Coordinator Becky Handforth, I immediately was head deep in the challenging, hectic, and rewarding task of enhancing the Operation Frontline program. My daily schedule includes recruiting and managing volunteers, creating nutrition lesson enhancements, organizing supplies for classes, and coming home every night exhausted but generally in high spirits.

So how do I have time and why am I starting a blog? Well, when I’m not planning classes, running around the warehouse, or making nutrition “art” projects, I read food blogs. Recipes, rants about industrial farming, travel adventures, I’m hooked. There is really impressive food/policy writing out there on the blogosphere, some of my favorites being The Ethicurean, Chewswise, and TheSlowCook (a fellow Washingtonian!). I probably have 50+ recipes bookmarked (I really am going to make those sweet potato and radish pancakes soon!), and anyone who asks me about why I don’t eat commercially grown meat anymore will get… well, quite the earful (sorry, Mom).

All this to say, in another attempt to combine my fun and my work, I’m starting a blog that records Operation Frontline’s work here in D.C. I hope to highlight the widespread, often overlooked reality of hunger in this city and reflect on the complex obstacles that stand in the way of a meaningful solution. I would also like to spotlight our incredible volunteers, who give their time each week to share their strengths and passions to improve our community’s welfare. When possible, I will share participants’ stories, full of good intentions and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Of course, I will also include favorite recipes, with photos of the cooking process and finished product.

In sharing our successes and challenges, I hope to spread the joy and hope of this program while also emphasizing the enormity of the task ahead. Of course, all of your comments, ideas, and reflections are welcome.