Culinary Skills and Healthy, Inexpensive Meals Are the Focus of HomeFront’s Teaching Kitchen
KIDS IN THE KITCHEN: Slicing, dicing, and mixing, under the encouraging guidance of HomeFront staff member Miss Tammi, are the focus of these boys, enjoying a class at HomeFront’s Teaching Kitchen. After their careful preparation and cooking, they are proud to eat and share what they have created.
Good health starts in the kitchen. Not at the local fast food establishment, or with a quick candy bar, bag of potato chips, or soda — as tempting and convenient as those options may be.
Sound nutrition and inexpensive meals are the foundation of HomeFront’s Teaching Kitchen program, which offers culinary classes for children, mothers, fathers, and grandparents. Emphasizing heathy ingredients and convenient low-budget meals, the classes not only help the participants with cooking skills, but also foster a true enjoyment of the creativity of cooking.
Located at HomeFront’s eight-and-a-half-acre Family Campus at 101 Celia Way in Ewing (near Mercer County Airport), the Teaching Kitchen began in 2015 under the guidance of long-time HomeFront volunteer June Pecora. She designed the kitchen, set up the program, and recruited chefs and volunteers.
“June is the guiding energy of the Teaching Kitchen,” says HomeFront Founder and Director Connie Mercer.
A Princeton resident, Ms. Pecora had supported HomeFront in various ways in the past. She says, “I donated and delivered my clothes, and wrote a check to HomeFront for years. Then, four years ago, I attended ‘A Day in the Life of HomeFront,’ a meeting with Connie and others, who talked about the scope of HomeFront. I was blown away when I realized how much it accomplishes and how many people they help.
“I went to the director of development and asked ‘What can I do?’ She said ‘What are you passionate about?’ Well, I love to cook! So, I contacted a dear friend of mine, Mario Mangone, owner of Chambers Walk restaurant in Lawrenceville, and asked if we could have a cooking class there. He agreed, and I designed a class. We had one class a month at Chambers Walk for the HomeFront kids, and they were so enthusiastic.”
After that initial launching, the program has taken off to become a very important and popular feature at HomeFront’s new campus, with 200 clients taking part every year. “The whole purpose is to get families to learn how to cook on a low budget, using healthy ingredients for convenient eating,” said Ms. Pecora, whose volunteer work continues to focus on the kitchen.
“Chris Crawford is the supervisor and oversees the operation, and we have volunteer teachers. Eating well when money and time are limited can be a challenge for anyone, but depending on processed food and fast food because they are cheap can lead to a lifetime of health issues,” points out Ms. Pecora. “Our goal here is to empower clients with inexpensive meals that are good for you as well as convenient. For example, we try to make it easy and quick to prepare. The students will learn how to roast a chicken, and then have it all week as leftovers, when it can become salad, quesadillas, and soup.”
“Those who are helped in so many ways by HomeFront are truly in need, not only suffering from homelessness, but often from loss of hope,” explains Ms. Mercer. “So many people don’t understand the reality of HomeFront’s clients’ lives. It can be chaotic for them. So the cooking has to be convenient. They don’t have a vehicle, but have to rely on a bus to get where they’re going. It’s not easy. Always remember that HomeFront grew out of working with individual families, families that needed to claw their way out of poverty. HomeFront is about putting the pieces together and helping to create an environment where no homeless family and kids don’t get a shot at the future.”
With the help of financial donations and the time and effort of volunteers, the Teaching Kitchen took shape. The large fully-equipped, state-of-the-art facility contains six stations for different procedures, three electric stoves and three gas stoves.
“We designed the kitchen so that one class can watch and observe and then another will be part of a working group,” explains Ms. Pecora. “We tried to include the same appliances that the families would have at their own home.”
In addition to the top-of-the-line equipment, the kitchen is filled with a series of encouraging sentiments and sayings posted on the wall. For example: “The best ingredient is confidence. The best nutrient is love.” Also, “The Teaching Kitchen is a Place of Fun and Learning and Respect for All. Welcome!”
Typically, the classes are an hour and a half long once a week, and include seven to 14 students, with four or five volunteer teachers. Children’s ages range from 7 to 16. In addition, family unit classes, including parents, grandparents and children, are held once a month.
Three new monthly classes—Tasting Table, Manly Meals, and Family Traditions—have recently been added.
All ages are benefitting, and the enthusiasm is contagious, reports Ms. Mercer. “People just love it. An older gentleman couldn’t wait to go home and make a dinner for his son. Another man said, ‘When can I come again?’ I have really been surprised by how much the men love participating in the cooking.”
Sometimes, they come in and are skeptical,” adds Ms. Pecora. “They see cooking as a chore, just one more thing they have to do. But, then they see how they can enjoy it, and the class can become a playground. They walk into the kitchen, feel the energy, and they think of it as craft time, when they see all the colorful ingredients and activity.
“One of my favorite memories is of a little 8- or 9-year-old girl, stirring soup, looking at all the colorful ingredients, and saying ‘all the colors of the rainbow, and that is very good for my body.’”
“It’s the ripple effect of the kitchen,” said Ms. Mercer. “Kids see the importance of healthy eating, and they can come in and be empowered and engaged. A 9-year-old boy came in, and had never been to school. We sent him home with a bag of groceries, and he said, ‘This was the best day of my life!’”
A young woman in the program and mother of a young girl, recently commented on one of her favorite dishes. “We learned how to make Chinese food with white rice, chicken, and broccoli. We learned the proper measurements, and we also learned how to budget and how much to spend on food. It emphasizes budget-friendly meals. This is something to look forward to. We cook it, and then we eat it!”
In another class, a little girl learned to make her favorite veggie wrap, and was very proud when she was asked by her mother to teach her how to make it at home.
Veggie wraps are very popular both as wraps and also as open face, pizza-style. Another favorite dish is turkey stew, reports Ms. Pecora, and on special occasions, the aroma of treats like Christmas cookies wafts through the kitchen.
“I love to see a kid take a bite of what they have made and cut their own food,” she adds. “It builds self-esteem and raises the bar. It lets them know there are opportunities out there they didn’t even know about. This kitchen space is all about enabling people to stand up on their own. I just don’t think many people realize what the HomeFront clients are up against.”
HomeFront will also be sponsoring two general summer camp cooking programs in July and August for children 9 to 12 and another for college-bound students. The $250 fee will support the HomeFront mission to end homelessness in central New Jersey.
In its 25-year history, HomeFront has become a multi-faceted organization that helps homeless people and those in need in numerous ways. It provides emergency shelter, food, clothing, affordable housing, educational opportunities, and job training and placement.
The Teaching Kitchen is now an important part of that mission. As Ms. Mercer points out, “HomeFront’s great benefit is that it gives people a vision of a different future and the tools to get there. So they can realize their vision. The Teaching Kitchen is a perfect example of what we do.”
For information on the summer camp program, call HomeFront at (609) 989-9417.