Veggie Educators Empower Food Pantry Clients

Where do food pantry staff and volunteers go to unleash their inner food geek? This spring, Just Food hosted a series of Veggie Educator trainings, which brought together 90 food pantry staff and volunteers to taste and talk about a rainbow of vegetables from golden beets to purple carrots, Swiss chard and purslane to banana peppers and more.

The Veggie Educator trainings are part of Just Food's Local Produce Link program, which helps food pantries and other emergency food programs make fresh, nutritious, locally-grown food available to families and individuals in need. In addition to fresh local produce, the program provides food education for food pantry clients.

Shirrell Patterson, a long-time volunteer at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Food Pantry in Harlem, completed the Veggie Educator training in spring 2011. Since June, Shirrell has volunteered her time on distribution days, talking with clients and staff alike about the vegetables on offer. Each week the pantry receives 180 pounds of produce, including a root vegetable, a salad or cooking green, and a seasonal vegetable from J. Glebocki Farm in Goshen, New York.

During a recent Monday distribution, clients had the option to take home arugula, red spring onions and kohlrabi. While most people are familiar with greens and onions, the oddly shaped kohlrabi bulb is more of a challenge. In order to encourage clients to take a chance on the root, Shirrell shared fresh slices of kohlrabi, recipes, and cooking tips.

Thanks to Shirrell’s encouragement, many St. Mary’s clients tried the kohlrabi, and enjoyed its sweet flavor and crisp texture. Once she had them hooked, Shirrell shared pointers on using kohlrabi, from adding it to a salad to eating raw slices as a healthier snack alternative to potato chips. A few people were already familiar with the vegetable, and shared their own tips with Shirrell and fellow pantry clients. 

“I love vegetables, I eat them every day,” says Shirrell. “In my community, I don't see a lot of children eating vegetables. I wish everyone could eat and enjoy vegetables--they don't know what they're missing! I like working with the clients, giving the veggies out and telling them all about them.”

St. Mary’s Pantry Director Janet Dorman (left), who also participated in the Veggie Educator training, as well as other Just Food trainings, stresses the importance of using the knowledge clients already have when promoting the produce.  “It’s so important to actually have samples out and talk about how these can be used like other vegetables people know—like ‘these greens are like collard greens.’ We just relate to knowledge that people already have.” Janet encourages her Veggie Educators to value that knowledge and to use it to empower their clients.

Through Local Produce Link, a partnership with the United Way of NYC funded by the New York State Department of Health’s Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, Just Food connects 45 pantries with local farms. United Way and Just Food developed the Veggie Educator program to support participating food pantries in their efforts to encourage clients to try unfamiliar vegetables.