One of the things I love most about blogging and social media is being able to “meet” people all over the country doing inspiring work related to kids and food.
One of those people is Alli Sosna of MicroGreens, an eight-week educational program which teaches economically disadvantaged students to cook a meal for four people on just $3.50 — the same amount families receive under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The MicroGreens program piloted in D.C. in 2012 and is now located in five cities.
Sosna started out wanting to become a restaurant chef, after a junior year abroad in Italy opened her eyes to a new food culture and the ways in which food can bring people together. Upon her return from Italy, she offered to volunteer at a local D.C. bistro to learn basic food prep and after graduating from college she attended culinary school. She soon found positions in a number of fine D.C. restaurants, but a desire to give back to her community eventually led her to take a job in the DC Central Kitchen, an organization which feeds the hungry while teaching culinary skills to the unemployed. And that’s where her life took an unexpected turn.
TLT: Can you tell me what happened at the DC Central Kitchen which led you to leave your promising career as a young chef and instead start MicroGreens?
AS: When I worked at the DC Central Kitchen, I was assigned to working with at-risk middle school boys. Feeding these boys made me feel like I was back in Italy. We spent time doing cooking demos, showing the kids new ingredients, and forcing them to question where food came from, all while educating my cooks — and sometimes myself. Our success there led to the DC Central Kitchen becoming the food service provider for eight low-income D.C. public schools. During my time in that job, I saw poverty first hand. The majority of our families were on SNAP. Children were coming to school with chips and soda at 7 am. It was a nutritionist’s worst nightmare.
As I thought about my next career step, I realized I wanted to focus on SNAP. As a chef, we are taught to make something taste good and make money and that’s what I wanted to teach. But rather than teach families, I decided I would focus on middle school children. I wanted to teach kids to cook but do it in a way that truly effected the purchasing of food at home. I wanted to use these kids as a vessel into altering purchasing behavior at home.
TLT: What are some of the basic skills you try to teach kids during the program? How do you choose the particular dishes you prepare?
AS: We focus on knife skills and sauté skills. We spend the first hour of the program cutting onions, carrots, and celery. Thereafter, each class uses knife skills. We ensure the students leave the program being able to cut in the same sizes (so that ingredients cook at the same time without being burned). The students also learn how to sauté and use proper measurements for dishes like rice. Our dishes are created based on cost, popularity, and shelf life. For example, we made a recipe for chicken soup, chicken stir fry, and pulled pork. These are well known dishes for many demographics. The ingredients we use focus on longevity, like lemon juice, spices, sriracha, frozen vegetables (especially frozen items because you can usually get a great deal on them – buy one, get one free, etc.)
The program’s main focus is on buying inexpensive food in bulk and then teaching children how to prepare it. For example, in the second class, students buy a whole chicken and learn to butcher it, then learn how to make the chicken soup and the stir-fry. At the end of the program, students graduate with a certificate, a free crock-pot, a measuring spoon set and a cutting board – all tools they’ve used over the course of the program.
TLT: Do you also try to reach adults with your program?
AS: Three weeks into one of our programs in D.C., we launched a MacroGreens. It was the same curriculum but with the parents of elementary school students. They all graduated and received the equipment just as any graduate would receive upon competition of the program. It was an eye opener for the parents, both in the skills they learned and the fact that their children were also learning these lasting life skills.
TLT: There’s been some criticism of celebrities and politicians who’ve taken the SNAP challenge, in part on the grounds that the exercise is too superficial to be meaningful. What do you think about that criticism?
AS: Any attention brought to hunger and SNAP is OK with me. It’s definitely a shock for the celebrities, which is the whole point. I wrote an article for the Huffington Post about this a few years ago.
TLT: Why do you think cooking skills are so important generally, and particularly among those who subsist on SNAP benefits?
AS: Cooking skills are imperative to everyone, regardless of income level. Not to sound dramatic but cooking is a survival skill. I believe it is important for people to have this skill because it can be the difference between paying the cable bill and eating. I had a tight budget in college and I’ve been unemployed. Life throws curve balls at you and being able to cook helps avoid some of the curve.
TLT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell Lunch Tray readers about MicroGreens?
AS: MicroGreens is growing! If you would like to launch it in your school, after school program, train staff, or get a tailored curriculum, we offer consulting and curriculum services. We want to educate as many people as we can, macro or micro.
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Many thanks to Alli Sosna for taking the time to speak with me! You can find more information on MicroGreens and/or reach Alli directly via this link.
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