Most people would drop their jaws if they were handed 500 pounds of apricots and instructed to get cooking.
But for Barb Stewart, getting a mountain of produce is a moment of glee.
Stewart is the Salvation Army’s’ Penticton program co-ordinator who for the last year has overseen an innovative new project to get good, homemade food into local bellies.
The non-profit fired up its first community kitchen last October, setting up a teaching kitchen at 2964 South Main St. where food bank recipients and others with an interest are invited to learn the benefits of cooking meals from scratch.
They focus on the natural goodness of food that comes from the ground, not a box.
“I think that makes our community kitchen quite unique, because we try to be as organic as possible. We try to reach out with gluten-free experiences for celiacs,” she explained, adding multicultural fare has also been introduced including everything from pad thai to samosas.
Grants from companies and non-profits have allowed them to stock the kitchen with industrial equipment fit for the finest chefs, and Stewart said they want to showcase their talent. The kitchen plans on taking part in the Food Banks Canada organic bake sale set to take place at Cherry Lane Shopping Centre in October.
The bake sale is a chance to spread the word about organic food, which Stewart said will help build the community kitchen’s network. The plan doesn’t stop at linking health and good food. She wants participants to meet the faces behind local agriculture.
“We take these trips out to the farms that really connect us to the soil and the farmers,” Stewart said, adding grant funding is helping them host farmers, enabling visits to the kitchen. “We want to bring them in and see the community kitchen in action, to really make that connection.”
The group recently made the trek to Cawston, where Food of the Sun Organic Farm hosted 12 people interested in learning about the process of red Russian garlic. A trailer full of garlic heads rolled up to the participants, and they dived in to spend more than two hours skinning and peeling garlic.
“They felt so good about helping,” Stewart said, “and even a fellow who was blind. He felt so good that it was something he could do.”
They’ve also connected cooking with the seasons, illustrating to participants the natural rhythms of farm production. That has also meant being very, very busy these last few weeks as the harvest set in.
Penticton resident Marilyn Bishop said family connected her with the community kitchen. Her granddaughter, 24-year-old Shy-anne Kruger, had taken in a few sessions when one of the kitchen staff mentioned that they needed someone with expertise in canning and preserves. Kruger told them her nanny would be willing.
Bishop laughs about how she was volunteered for the role, but says it’s been a good experience.
“All the ones who came in to learn, the people that came in at different times and stages were all very helpful and really keen on learning,” she said, adding they’ve tackled freezer jam, canned jam, preserves and dehydrating food.
“Our canned cherries turned out really well. We did canned apricots — 500 pounds of apricots — and basically it all turned out good.”
Bishop said information about preserving food is everywhere including bookstores, the library and Internet, which proves to be an expansion of what typically was knowledge handed down through generations.
“You just have to reach out for it, basically. And if worst comes to worse, ask grandma. They’re usually pretty good at it,” she said.
Patrons often include food bank recipients who range in age and experience in the kitchen. Nutrition consultant Lorraine Pattison, who helps cover nutrition topics like food labels and budgeting, says the varied experiences offer the perfect opportunity to introduce them to a new culinary world.
“There’s people who are single mothers and say they don’t know how to cook,” she said. “If they would come and learn nutrition and get their kids started on the right thing. They’re making bread, they’re making pie, homemade cake, chili and stew. … They’re not opening up any packages. They’re making it all from scratch. That’s exciting. They’re hungry for nutrition.”
Homemade food does require an investment of sweat equity, though.
“Cooking is hard work,” Pattison said, adding it’s worth the effort. “Whenever you give someone food from scratch, people say, ‘Wow, that tastes good.’
“That’s the premise is that you give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, you teach a day. You want them to learn how to cook and pass it on, teach their friends.”
Community kitchen participants are also modelling the behaviour for their youngest family members. The Community Foundation of the South Okanagan gave them a $5,000 grant to build a play space next to the kitchen, allowing parents to bring their little ones with them to the facility. Parents take turns minding the children, and Stewart said they’re hoping to have volunteers so all 12 participants can devote their energies in the kitchen.
“They see and they smell what’s coming from that kitchen,” Stewart said. “They know what’s going on, that the casserole is going home with them to the freezer. The kids just glow with excitement.”
Farmers or those looking to take part in program can contact Stewart at 250-492-4788.