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!