In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, author Michael Pollan examines the way that cooking transforms not only natural ingredients, but also the human being. He speculates that our species evolved along with cooking, a process that allows us to concentrate enough calories to support our large, energy-hungry brains. But since the industrial revolution, there has been a steady shift away from food prepared at home toward food that has been mass-produced.
Pollan suggests that the modern diet faces a dual plague: too many calories and at the same time too little nourishment. “The path to a healthier diet of fresh, unprocessed food,” he concludes, “passes right through the home kitchen.” But, he wonders, with fewer people than ever preparing their own meals, who will teach the next generation how to do it?
Nina Bryce and Erica “Ricki” Horne are answering Pollan’s question with determined action. The two young women work with a DC-based youth development organization, Brainfood, which uses food as a tool to build life skills and promote healthy living in a fun and safe environment. Brainfood engages local high school students in programs that aim to empower them through cooking from scratch. Both women connected with Brainfood through AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.
A typical day might find Nina and Ricki in the kitchen at Calvary Baptist Church, teaching knife skills, demonstrating how to make a roux or coaching a student to brighten a bland béchamel. One meaningful outcome, they say, is empowering young people to carry on their family’s cooking traditions and even improve on them by using fresh, instead of processed, food.
Nina recalls how one student created a string bean casserole, a Thanksgiving standby in her family, using fresh green beans, homemade mushroom sauce and crispy onions she fried herself. Her family declared it far superior to grandma’s version made with Campbell’s soup and canned beans.
Two different paths led these dynamic young women to apply to serve as AVODAH Corps members. Nina says that meals together were an anchor of stability in her family’s busy life. In high school, Nina became passionate about food justice, youth work, advocacy and education while volunteering at an inner-city community garden.
In college, food was her entry point into Jewish life. Although most of the food-related projects she worked on in college were not with Jewish organizations, she noticed that Jewish participants were overrepresented in these groups. “There is something powerful with Jews and food,” she says.
Ricki recognized food justice as being central to her values while still in high school. One day a friend confided that his family didn’t always have enough money for food, and he was often hungry. Ricki began packing a brown bag lunch for her friend every day along with her own. When her friend committed suicide, Ricki says it forced her to confront the injustice surrounding food. Although she doesn’t know the exact reasons her friend took his life, she is certain that his circumstances played a role. She began to wonder what she could do to make a difference and relieve the kind of suffering that could lead to such a tragedy. Her desire to create change in tandem with a strong Jewish identity led her to AVODAH and Brainfood.
Brainfood is about discovering which ingredients make a meal delicious and healthy, but more importantly, participants learn to be confident in the kitchen, taking the preparation of their meals away from factories and fast food chains and back into their own hands. It seems like a small change, but Michael Pollan thinks such a simple shift could radically change our family life and our health, as well as protect the environment of planet earth. Nina and Ricki believe that he’s right, and they are not just betting the (organic) farm on it—they are working to make this vision a reality.
Top photo: Ricki Horne (left) and Nina Bryce with their students during a Brainfood class.