About a year ago, Manny Ramos began getting cooking compliments from his wife. Ramos always enjoyed cooking, but his dishes were usually yellow rice and beans with fried chicken.
“One day, I cooked pasta with cheese. My wife asked me how I did it,” Ramos said. “She likes the way I cook now.”
Ramos’ new culinary repertoire is the result of a 12-week course he took at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a food pantry housed in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, on West 86th Street and Broadway. He started volunteering there at the suggestion of a friend from church.
Ramos, who lives in The Bronx, is one of the program’s 132 graduates, many of whom return to volunteer their time and cook alongside current students. He signed up for the chef training and cooking program and completed the course about six months ago. The course imbued him with a desire to learn more, and he is now taking a class on cakes—in addition to waking up at 6:30 a.m. every day to travel to the Upper West Side and volunteer.
“I like the way they treat people,” Ramos said of the program, while eating a plate of chicken, rice and salad he helped prepare one day last month.
Now in the middle of its 24th session, the class teaches students and graduates cooking techniques, safety measures and nutrition. Each class begins with taking food straight from the pantry—outside food is banned from the kitchen—and studying the labels, nutritional facts and list of ingredients.
“We take students into the pantry in the morning and say, ‘What are we going to make for lunch?’” said Mark D’Alessandro, the program’s chef and nutritionist.
Part of the lesson includes cooking lunch for volunteers at the grocery store-style food pantry. Many of those volunteers—who can number 20 to 30 people on any given day—are clients of the pantry as well. Pantry use has grown 39 percent in the past two years.
The chef program started in January 2002 with the goal of teaching clients who were using the pantry the skills needed to cook healthy meals at home.
“We saw the need not just to give people food, but to educate them about healthy living,” said Stewart Desmond, development director at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.
Students, many of whom are Latino, are chosen by the food pantry staff. Successful candidates for the program must demonstrate that they are interested in a food industry career, or may have a health condition that could be alleviated by a balanced diet. For some, finishing the course increases kitchen skills, which may result in better pay.
“There are a lot of jobs you can grow in if you increase your cooking skills. Home health care attendant is a good example of that,” Desmond said.
The program emphasizes nutrition and safe food preparation, and lessons are focused on learning to cook without draining food of essential vitamins. In the kitchen, counters are stringently disinfected with chlorine. Students even get a vial to make sure the level of chlorine used to clean surfaces is satisfactory.
Guest lecturers from New York University and Hunter College also stop by.
“If you’re going to give people food, give them more. Give them a nutrition education,” D’Alessandro said.
D’Alessandro, a 30-year-old “farm boy from northern Kentucky living in New York City,” came to the West Side Campaign Against Hunger a year ago with an extensive background in the food industry. He was a butcher for two-and-a-half years and he studied at a Cordon Bleu program in Miami. For the past four years, he has been teaching at the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts through Kingsborough Community College.
The rewarding part of the program, D’Alessandro said, is when students bring home the lessons they learn.
“We want them to cook a healthy balanced meal for their family in a nutritional and safe way,” he said.
Martina Santos, who was eight weeks in to the chef program, said she was already trying to include vegetables in her family’s diet. She admitted to sneaking chopped broccoli into her 14-year-old granddaughter’s food.
“I tell her why it’s important to eat vegetables because [D’Alessandro] is teaching me about nutrition,” Santos said.
But the program is more than a crash course in food for Santos, who has been diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder. Classes motivate her to wake up in the morning, and she volunteers at the kitchen every day. After her lesson is over, she works in the pantry.
“I’m supposed to be here only on Monday and Wednesday,” Santos said. “But every day, you learn something new.”
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