On a rainy Friday morning outside Multnomah County’s Rockwood Community Health Center, the smell of sizzling onions wafts through the air.
In front of the brick building in outer Southeast Portland stands a makeshift kitchen -- two gingham-covered tables laden with a mini stove, bags of fresh veggies and a bottle of hot sauce.
Jeff Holland, a Rockwood community health specialist decked out in a Texas-themed apron, stirred the onions, potatoes and green beans in a frying pan as a crowd formed.
Clinic employees and patients alike grabbed paper plates and dug in, eating and chatting as an “Earth, Wind, & Fire” CD played in the background.
The event was the Rockwood clinic’s sixth cooking demonstration in the last 18 months.
The demonstrations, which are open to everyone in the community, serve a simple purpose: to promote healthy eating and bring together those who might not normally meet for a meal.
“I just saw it as part of my mission as a community health specialist to help...enhance the access to fresh food out here,” said Holland, a self-described foodie who leads the demonstrations.
Such events are an opportunity to bring fresh meals to a neighborhood that’s known as a “food desert,” an area marked by an abundance of fast food restaurants and fewer affordable, healthy options.
But healthy eating, Holland says, is essential to staying in good health and reducing the chance of diabetes--a disease common among patients at the health clinic.
He likes to quote Hippocrates: “Let medicine be your food and food be your medicine.”
Holland partners with Jerry Hunter, the county’s urban agriculturalist who runs the CROPS -- (Community Reaps Our Produce and Shares) Farm. The farm serves local social service agencies in need of fresh crops, and it’s where Holland picks the produce -- whatever’s in season -- for the cooking demonstrations.
“I love the fact that we’re able to work this thing together,” said Holland. “I think any kind of collaboration that we work on helps everybody.”
The recipes, such as Friday’s vegetable medley, are usually kept simple so that they can be replicated easily at home.
“You can make a lot of it quickly, and then you have leftovers for later,” said Seth Dowler, a security guard at the Rockwood clinic and frequenter of the cooking demonstrations. He says he’s tried most the recipes at home in his kitchen.
On Friday, Holland’s day began a little after 7 a.m. when he stopped by the CROPS farm in Troutdale to pick up the veggies. And he grabbed a few spare squash plants to hand out to any patients who wanted them.
Elisa Sanchez, the receptionist at the Rockwood Center, has been helping out at the demonstrations since Day One. Like many of Rockwood’s patients, she was diagnosed with diabetes.
Once diagnosed, she cut out tortillas and bread from her diet in an effort to eat better. After shedding nearly 80 pounds, she says she realized the power of healthy eating, something she brings forward at the demonstrations.
“We try to show the patients what they can eat with fresh vegetables so that they can try to eat healthy,” she said.
For patient Lilly Daniels the cooking demonstration was the first she’d attended.
Lately, lunch has been hard to come by for Daniels, who’s busy with a new job.
What was the best part about the event? “Free food!” she said. “Healthy food!”
And that kind of reaction is why Holland does what he does.
“I would like patients to take away that it’s not hard to eat well. It’s just not difficult,” said Holland. “And it tastes good.”
How to make vegetable medley:
- Four cloves of garlic
- Green beans
- Sliced carrots
- Sliced potatoes
- Olive oil
- Curry powder