Many of us remember the days of hiding our vegetables under the table or feeding them to a pet. We can still hear the echo of our parents’ admonition: ‘no dessert until your vegetables are gone.’
Well, those days are over. And a new program is helping women make friends with their veggies while they rebuild their lives.
“Cooking our Way Through the Year One Vegetable at a Time” is a collaboration between Juliette Tahar, the founder of Healthy Living Inc., and N Street Village, a community of empowerment and recovery for homeless and low-income women in Washington, D.C.
One Thursday a month, the women of N Street gather for a cooking class focused primarily on one vegetable, one skillet and minimal ingredients.
Tahar has been in the natural food business since 1992 as a teacher, a private chef and working for a private catering business. But it wasn’t until after Tahar began volunteering at shelters, in 2004, after a family member passed away, that she found a new and unexpected way of using her talents. She decided to bring a message of well-being to people who were overcoming homelessness. .
“Helping these women was a way for me to help the cause,” Tahar said. Tahar admitted times have changed, but in 2004, food was more limited in the shelters a decade ago.
“Nutrition information and cooking skills were severely lacking, so I stopped my private businesses and created Healthy Living Inc. We started out servicing other shelters, then servicing the youth, and
now we have programs all around the city servicing everybody of all ages,” Tahar said with a laugh.
While teaching a class at Calvary Women’s Shelter, a participant asked Tahar to bring her program to N Street Village. After approval and communication with the directors of N Street Village, she began her class there about three and a half years ago.
“From my experience, everyone knows how to cook meat, it’s not complicated,” Tahar said. “But, when it comes to vegetables and whole grains, it is like a whole new training because with vegetables you have to prepare them and a lot of people I have come to realize just don’t know how.”
Tahar emphasizes that access to fresh food is crucial. She hopes her classes serve as a chance for women to learn about fresh food, the benefits of fresh food and learn easy inexpensive ways to make it.
Her program works through the seasons with an emphasis on seasonal vegetables, since they are known to always be cheaper whether at the super market or farmers markets.
For a class on Sept. 19, potatoes were the focus. Using them, together with celery, onions and a few other ingredients, the class of 14 women were taught how to make a healthy (and mayo-free) potato salad.
In each class, the women can look forward to an exchange of knowledge about food, nutrition and practical cooking tips. They leave with a new trick to cook a meal with the featured vegetable in a way that will be adaptable to their needs. Tahar keeps her lessons very broad and just shows some techniques, leaving the women able to take what they learned and use it any way they want.
Throughout the cooking lesson, Tahar opens the conversation up to any questions or comments. One participant commented that she might be able to ‘eat healthier if she had the appropriate chopping machines.’
“You don’t need anything to eat healthy except yourself,” Tahar said in response.
After the hour long class came to a close, the women were all given a chance to test the dish they had prepared. After just a few bites, everyone’s face lit up.
“Absolutely marvelous,” Jackie, a participant from the class said.
Eating healthy is not something that should be difficult. And healthy ingredients are within reach, thanks to a growing number of farmers markets and grocery stores.
Besides this program, there are many other classes, programs and opportunities offered at N Street Village that promote health education, physical fitness, and holistic well-being.
“Through the Wellness Center program we offer over 20 classes each week (4 or 5 classes a day) that range from artistic expression (poetry, art, open studio, autobiography) to physical fitness (yoga, dance, fitness), to mental health (anger management, let’s talk mental health, grief and loss), to educational (vegetable of the month, ask the doctor, diabetes, etc.), Kate Akalonu, Communications and Engagement Manager, said.