Life Lessons

A Vermont shelter teaches families in need how to eat more healthfully

Life Lessons

Life Lessons

Nancy Chase and the volunteers at the Upper Valley Haven—a shelter, food pantry and resource center in White River Junction, Vermont—have long worked to make sure people in their community had a place to turn to meet their basic needs during periods of hardship. Not long ago, they found a unique new way to go beyond those basics.

"I noticed folks bypassing the fresh vegetables and fruit in our food pantry, saying they didn't know what they were or how to prepare them," says Nancy, the Haven's resource coordinator since 2008.

From that observation, an idea was born. "I dreamed of teaching people to prepare simple, produce-filled recipes 5 days a week," Nancy says. "I wanted to give them a sample, a recipe and all the ingredients they'd need to prepare it themselves."

Soon, with help from friends and volunteers, the Haven's Healthy Eating Program was underway, designed to teach visitors about making healthy choices. "It began with one volunteer preparing soup once a week. Now, there's enough volunteers to cook 5 days a week," says Nancy.

The volunteer cooks prepare dishes for sampling, using the pantry's most abundant produce, which can range from eggplant to ugli fruit, depending on what's been donated. The lessons also have to be practical since many of the Haven's visitors only have access to microwaves or electric skillets.

"It feels a bit like a cooking show," says Vickie Davis, the volunteer cook on Fridays.

"And now, since starting the program, the produce is gone at the end of the day."

"Children run to the table asking what they can taste," Nancy adds. "Mothers are amazed that their kids will eat star fruit, kiwi, mango and almost every vegetable we offer. One young mother who always said she didn't eat vegetables has since sampled beets, eggplant, parsnips and sweet potatoes."

Today, when people enter the Haven, they're greeted by the aroma of cooking. "It puts a smile on their faces," says Nancy. "They become more talkative, and that's the start of us forming a relationship with them."

And if all goes according to Nancy's plan, that's one more family who, instead of feeling hunger, will feel a little love.