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.