In the test kitchen at the Capital Area Food Bank, the dozen amateur cooks — mostly food pantry volunteers — told similar stories of hunger, poor health and hopelessness.
They spoke of lines at food pantries getting longer each month. A pastor spoke of kids who showed up for food and later went to health fairs, only to be sent to emergency rooms because their blood pressure was so high. Others spoke of distributing produce to people who shared plans to fry it or shower it with salt.
But on Friday, the first step in the region’s quest to remedy the problem of unhealthy diets among the hungry commenced at the food bank’s warehouse in Northeast Washington.
A chef had accepted the challenge to conjure nutritious meals from some of the food bank’s most popular items — dishes that required less than $8 to feed four.
“You can’t get to healthy without delicious,” Kate Sherwood, the executive chef at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the group.
If the group liked the dish, the recipe would be placed in an online database, as well as printed in English and Spanish on cards distributed at more than 500 social service agencies around the region. They’d be handed out at cash registers and tucked in bags of donated food in hopes that children would prefer the healthy meals over pizza and fast food.
The mission’s urgency has increased this month as poor families nationally have seen their allotment of food stamps cut between 5 and 8 percent. At least one in three children in the District already had been going hungry, while entire neighborhoods in wards 7 and 8 lack full-service supermarkets, according to the nonprofit D.C. Hunger Solutions. At Manna Food Center in Montgomery County, Development Director Mark Foraker said the average number of households served each month has jumped over the past five years from about 2,000 to 3,600.
The Capital Area Food Bank began incorporating recipe testing more than a year ago. Chefs would come in and train volunteers and families how to cook unusual donated items, such as venison. Now the testing is focused on preparing tasty meals that are low in calories and sodium and high in protein from ordinary food items: canned vegetables, beans, taco shells, roasted chicken.
Each month, Cam Henry, a staff member at the food bank, plucks out a list of those items and sends them to Sherwood. Sherwood examines the list, then brainstorms sample dishes. On Friday, these included curry chicken wraps, succotash, lemon pasta and collard greens.
Henry insisted that everyone follow the recipes precisely to make sure they were not too time-consuming, complicated or bland.
Arvis Powell, a volunteer at the food mission at Brighter Day Ministries in Southeast, took issue with the first step in a recipe for collard greens and potatoes.
“Chop collard greens?” Powell said. She then explained to the chef that this idea might not be culturally conscious. “In my home, we never chopped collard greens, we pull them.”
Sherwood said she’d edit the recipe. She figured tearing the greens would also allow parents to get their children involved with the cooking.
“Children are more likely to eat the food if they help out,” Sherwood said.
At another stove in the test kitchen, Jill Arvanitis was trying out a recipe for kidney stew. Arvanitis is a volunteer at a food pantry at Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, where she said people wait in line for an hour to receive food once a month. Over the past year, the number of families being served at the church has doubled.
“People are losing their jobs, and [food stamp] benefits are being cut, so this is really important now,’’ she said as she put together the recipe, which included tomato paste, celery, onions and spices. “But it uses thyme. I’m not sure people in my community use thyme or know where to get it.”
She made a note of the possible recipe problem on a piece of paper.
About a half-hour after the cooking started, the aromas of 10 dishes mixed in the air. The volunteers sampled each dish at a nearby table while the chef stood before them.
“What’d you think?” Sherwood asked. “If it’s delicious, well-done, you did a good job. If it’s not, that’s on me.”
Some couldn’t believe the curry chicken salad was so simple and flavorful. The chili-cheese baked potatoes were undercooked. Powell thought the collard greens could have used more salt. But the group thought the dishes using canned beans were too salty.
Turns out, a key step was missing from the bean dishes: draining and rinsing the beans.
“We’re going to edit this,’’ Sherwood said, adding that rinsing beans can reduce the sodium by as much as a third.
The volunteers looked on, some taking notes, eager to pass on the information to the hungry people who would be visiting them.