There is a room inside The Salvation Army’s church in Harrisburg, Pa., that could double as a set of a TV cooking program. There are eight stoves with sinks and counters for contestants, plus one stove and sink in the front for the host, complete with an overhead camera and monitor to show what is being prepared. But the cooking done in this kitchen isn’t to win competitions or score high ratings, but rather to educate the Harrisburg community on healthy cooking and better eating habits.
The cooking lessons go beyond food prepared for a day. They contribute to proper lunches for kids in school, healthier dinners at home for families, and better educated residents in the community.
“Fifteen years ago, we started bringing the Family Table Teaching Kitchen to different spaces and locations,” says Meghan Zook, community health and nutrition administrator for The Salvation Army Harrisburg Capital City Region. “But we wanted a place where the community would come to us.”
Four years ago, Salvation Army leaders in Harrisburg moved the church to its new location, which was built with a kitchen that anyone would want in their house. This would create a hands-on, healthy cooking experience that could be replicated at home.
Families, bachelors, and an ‘Iron Chef’
The Family Table Teaching Kitchen is a series of lessons with a focus on different audiences and lifestyles. Classes for children are held afterschool and taught by nutrition students from nearby Messiah College. During the corps’ summer program, the Teaching Kitchen is filled with over 100 children enjoying age-appropriate nutrition education classes each day as part of their schedule.
Adults learn from a nationwide cooking curriculum called “Cooking Matters for Adults.” Along with learning to prepare healthy meals, they learn about the five food groups and how to read nutritional labels on the products they buy. Kareen Yeager, the Army’s community health nutrition educator in Harrisburg, teaches these classes.
“In six weeks, we cover a lot. There are lessons on smart shopping, saving money, and meal prepping,” says Yeager, who has stayed in contact with her students since she taught her first class in October of 2021. One of these students is Toya Ramseur, who lost 85 lbs. through Yeager’s lessons.
“Toya was even interviewed on local TV; she’s a great representation for the program,” says Yeager. “All it took was some education and small changes to her food preparation.”
Though the adult classes have mostly women participants, “Man-Made Meals” was created for single men who want to cook for themselves, and married men whose wives aren’t making the healthiest meals for them. “These men take our classes because they want to be more in control of their health and the food preparation at home,” says Zook.
Senior citizens can participate in the adult classes, but they also have their own sessions at earlier times. Once a month, they welcome Joel Dincher, an Iron Chef who has competed against TV host and chef Bobby Flay. Dincher works with Zook, who herself is a registered dietician, to teach healthy eating to the seniors.
“Joel shows us his own cooking tips, tricks, ways to cut food, and even the personal spin he puts on his recipes. The seniors love when he teaches,” says Zook.
The Teaching Kitchen has partnered with local healthcare providers to find patients at risk for serious health problems and refer them to the Harrisburg Corps. There, the Teaching Kitchen provides them with a free, hands-on education in an accessible, judgement-free setting.
“If someone suffers from high blood pressure, there are steps they can take before going on medication. At the corps, they can learn those steps,” says Yeager, who has a degree in public health.
“We don’t want people in our community to reach the point that their health problems send them to the emergency room. It’s dangerous, expensive, and by then, it’s harder to educate someone on their health,” says Zook. “Instead, we want the doctors to tell them that they can get educated with us before it’s too late.”
The kitchen connection
After every class, students in the program are welcome to a bag of groceries from the Army’s choice pantry.
“The students tell me that taking part in this program helps their food budget. They prepare food that they can eat with us, and then take some food from the pantry back to their families,” says Zook. “When you want to make big changes in the community, you must make it as easy as possible for the community to change. There are low-income households that have a lot going on in their lives; they might be in-between jobs or busy caring for their kids. These folks may not have the money or the time to think about eating healthier.”
Along with better eating choices, participants of the Teaching Kitchen make friendships and connections with people who are also learning and trying to improve their health.
“Food feeds the body, but social interactions formed while cooking in a group feeds the mind and spirit,” says Zook. “When we get to know people who take our class, we also get to know their family, their health needs, and how to make them feel welcome. That connection feeds all our spirits too.”