Chef on Call

Better Meals From Humble Ingredients

Betty Smith, left, and Florence Sandridge sample a soup prepared during a cooking class at Bread for the City.
Betty Smith, left, and Florence Sandridge sample a soup prepared during a cooking class at Bread for the City. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Gloria Abney of Northwest Washington never imagined she would taste barley, let alone like it. But when Alison Swope, this month's Chef on Call, used chicken stock to slow-cook it into a "risotto" finished with Parmesan cheese, Abney became a convert after just one bite.

Not bad for someone who only recently overcame an aversion to green vegetables.

Such conversion was the goal of Swope's lesson last month for Fit for Fun, a program run by Bread for the City in which she showed Abney, 56, and other clients how to make more-healthful meals out of a bagful of donated groceries.

In addition to free medical care, clothing and legal and social services, the 30-year-old organization offers a three-day supply of groceries once a month to needy D.C. residents who qualify. It's a way to help bridge the gap between when one month's food stamps run out and the next month's arrive, a regular occurrence given that the maximum allotment for a family of four comes out to less than $5 per person per day. More than 10,000 people a month receive food from Bread for the City offices in Shaw and Anacostia.

For years, though, there was a problem. Many of the donated food items were unhealthful to begin with, and clients prepared them in ways that made them even worse. At the organization's medical clinic, the cause-and-effect relationship between poverty and obesity -- as well as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease -- became evident. "We can't educate our clients about how to make healthy choices one way and then feed them another way," said Randi Abramson, the clinic's director. So Bread for the City eliminated trans fats from the food bags and replaced red meat with fish, pork and poultry.

In 2005, the agency created the Fit for Fun program, offering regular medical visits and check-in calls, one-on-one nutrition and exercise consultations, and monthly classes meant to teach clients how to make nutritious meals from the ingredients typically found in the bags.

That's where Chef on Call came in. Rather than continuing to rely on well-meaning staff members to teach the cooking classes at Bread for the City's Shaw location, Development Associate Adrienne Ammerman asked The Post whether a professional chef could help.

Swope stepped up immediately. From the beginning of her 30-year restaurant career in Washington, she has participated in fundraising efforts for organizations dedicated to feeding others in need, such as Food and Friends and Share Our Strength.

The week of her appearance, Swope went to Bread for the City and looked through a typical bag of groceries, which included two boxes of pasta, a bag of dried beans, several cans of vegetables and a box of granola bars. Unsold produce from local farmers markets often shows up in the bags; proteins sometimes do, too, but less frequently. For her lesson, Swope developed a menu by swapping some of the ingredients she found in her bag (such as beans) for similar foods also likely to be available (barley). She added chicken, because it is a favored staple of most of the clients' diets. And she used some ingredients here and there that clients might either have in their pantries or buy at the store.

"This was perfect for me," said Swope, 47, whose new venture, Restaurant K By Alison Swope, just opened on K Street downtown. "I've come to embrace the importance of cooking more healthfully. Gone are the days of beginning service with a vat of clarified butter. Except for a couple of dishes, I've relegated butter use to desserts. I cook almost exclusively with olive oil."

That's what Bread for the City wanted to hear.

The 12 clients who showed up for Swope's lesson, mostly women in their 40s and 50s, represented a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some wore hard times on their faces; others did not. The overwhelming atmosphere in the room was one of mutual respect and dignity, two cornerstones of the agency's mission statement.

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