“I love food and enjoy seeing the way it brings communities together,” says Alabama Fellow Hamilton Behlen. “I admire community advocates who are pushing to transform urban food deserts into flowering neighborhoods, where fresh whole foods are easily attainable.”
When Behlen learned of The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, she immediately recognized an opportunity to share her passion for food and healthy living with others. Now the UAB School of Dentistry student is giving children in Birmingham’s Norwood neighborhood an “edible education” by teaching them basic cooking skills. They work with fresh produce that they grow in their community garden at the Norwood Resource Center (NRC), Behlen’s community site. Behlen says she wants participants to develop a connection to nutrition through cooking, to embrace the acts of growing and preparing freshly grown food, and to make informed decisions on food consumption.
For the two hours of each weekly class, Behlen’s young charges take control of the kitchen, reading, measuring, mixing, and cooking nutritious, delicious dishes. They then clear the area and sit down to eat their meal together, adhering to the rule that everyone must try at least one bite of everything that was prepared. While they eat, they discuss what they learned, what foods they like and don’t like, and whether they will try to recreate the dish at home, as they are given a copy of each recipe at the end of each class.
Behlen’s passion for growing and preparing whole food comes from her mother, a dietitian who often prepared nightly dinners with food grown on the family farm in Creola, AL. As her interest in both gardening and cooking developed, Behlen came to appreciate how intimately the two are linked. By connecting people back to whole food through her project, she hopes they will also come to appreciate the benefits of eating fresh, natural home cooking.
“Real, whole food can be intimidating because it has to be prepared, but I believe this hurdle can be overcome and cooking can be an enjoyable experience when the correct tools and skills are acquired,” Behlen says.
Participants in Behlen’s classes have embraced the tools and skills she shared with them, including the aprons her mother and friends donated.
“The aprons were a substitute for chef hats signifying their status as chefs during the class,” Behlen explains. “I was unsure of how they would be received, but to my surprise, all of the kids love them and wear them every week.”
She has also seen 100 percent participation at most classes, which was an unexpected surprise. Kids frequently voice their enjoyment each week they attend, and parents photograph their children participating, often posting them on social media.
In fact, students and their parents can’t seem to get enough of Behlen’s program. After teaching the class during an NRC summer camp, Behlen offered to continue the class through the school year as a Saturday Club. She was surprised to see parents signing up to take the course with their kids. At the first class in early September, parents and kids alike were excited and engaged, although the parents seemed more inquisitive and intent on recreating the recipes at home.
“The gratitude that they express at these classes continues to fuel my desire to develop fun, engaging, and high quality classes that will provide them with the skills needed to cook confidently while at home,” says Behlen.
Beyond the tenure of her project, Behlen is hopeful that participants in her classes continue cooking meals made from whole foods at home, trying new fruits and vegetables or finding new ways to enjoy old favorites. She also wants them to share their skills by teaching what they’ve learned to friends, family and neighbors.
Behlen says that being part of the 2017-2018 class of Schweitzer Fellows has given her a more holistic view of patient health. “A person’s health stems from how they take care of themselves, and a healthy diet is a key player in protection from diabetes, heart conditions, cancer and stroke,” she points out. “Being a Fellow has given me the tools, skills and confidence to create a program for communities who lack the health education and resources to maintain healthy eating habits at home.”