No more empty pots


September 20th, 2011

Omaha, NE – Most would agree on the importance of having fresh fruits and vegetables in their daily diet. So, what happens when people can’t eat an apple a day or cook with fresh vegetables? One community group hopes to correct this problem by making sure people fill their pots with healthy food.

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No More Empty Pots offers weekly cooking classes; Chef Johnson conducts this class at the Charles Drew Health Center. (Photo by Angel Martin)

On a recent hot summer afternoon, as people walked through the Charles Drew Health Center in north Omaha, the smell of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and onions filled the air. Chef Brian Johnson turned a small air-conditioned room into a kitchen/cooking class. On the menu is a fresh garden salad, with homemade dressing along with a vegetable cheese pasta dish.

“It will be green beans, peas and carrots in this recipe,” Johnson told his small group of listeners. “What I’m going to do is cook them a tiny bit longer, and they’ll finish cooking in the pan. But they’re going to have a nice little snap to them.”

This weekly healthy cooking program is hosted by the nonprofit group No More Empty Pots. “We’ve been called pots, no pots, empty pots, all kinds of pots!” laughed Nancy Williams, one of the organizers of the grassroots group. Williams says they’ve been working with the community since 2009, educating people about food deserts: areas where people don’t have ready access to healthy foods, both in urban and rural towns.

“Food is one of those basic things that can determine how well you live,” Williams said, “whether you have income or not. It does affect your health, it affects your well being, it affects your mental capacity, and it affects your ability to do what you need to do on a daily basis. So, yes food is important.”

Chef Brian Johnson demonstrates how to make pasta with peas and carrots. (Photo by Angel Martin)

In rural areas people often have to travel 15 to 20 miles to town to get to a full-service grocery store that sells fresh foods. While in impoverished urban areas like north Omaha, many liquor and convenience stores crowd the corner streets. And this often leads to a shortage of full grocery stores that sell fresh foods in those same areas. Susan Whitfield is the project manager for the group. She says they also focus on educating the community, which in this case is predominantly African American. She says urban food deserts, while more about poverty than race, contribute to health disparities among minorities.

“What we do know about the African American community…,” she said, “A lot of the issues around health disparities are preventable and manageable. Diabetes, hypertension, that’s manageable. If they get the right information and start practicing better health habits, it can change.”

No More Empty Pots follows a model that gets the food directly from the farmer to the consumer. Each week, the group sells what they call “community market baskets” in two locations: the Charles Drew Health Center and the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Center. The bags are loaded with bread, fruits, and vegetables and are affordably priced. People are also able to pay with food stamp cards.

“They get fresh food that’s delivered on Tuesday… and it gets to them on Wednesday. It’s very fresh; some of them still have the roots and soil from when it was pulled to get to them,” Williams said.

On Wednesday's, “Community Market Baskets” sold at two locations: the Charles Drew Health Center and the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Center. (Photo by Angel Martin)

During this year’s legislative session in the Nebraska Unicameral, State Senator Brenda Council introduced a bill to try to prevent food deserts, through state-funded initiatives that would expand farmers’ markets, community gardening projects, mobile markets and also offer incentives for stores that want to stock more healthy foods. Council’s bill passed in the Unicameral, but was vetoed by Governor Dave Heineman, who said he supported the goal but that the bill duplicated other efforts. But Williams says policies make all the difference.

“You have to have the policy to help inform that process,” Williams said. “To make sure that whatever gains you have that you keep them, and that they work long-term. Not just for the moment, and not just for a few people.”

Back at the cooking demonstration, Chef Johnson sprinkles dressing on a large bowl of salad. Brenda McGruder, along with a handful of other people, sampled his cooking. McGruder lives in North Omaha, and says she’s diabetic. Now a vegetarian, McGruder says cooking healthy foods is important to her.

Brenda McGruder (left) and a small group listen to Chef Johnson share cooking tips. (Photo by Angel Martin )

“You start thinking about the quality of life, how long you’re going to live, if you’re going to be able to take care of yourself,” McGruder said. “If you’ll be able to exercise to get out and do the things that you need to do in order to stay healthy. I always tell my nieces and nephews, if you’re going to start, you need to start it now (because) good habits stay with you, and if you create bad habits they are very, very hard to break.”

Stay tuned to KVNO News for part two of our healthy foods series. We’ll take a look at what keeps fresh foods from lining the shelves in some stores.



Recipes from Chef Brian Johnson:

Pasta with Peas and Carrots

• 1/2 pound small-shaped pasta
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 small onion, finely diced
• 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces
• 1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
• 1 cup frozen petite peas, thawed
• 1/2 cup (4 ounces) soft cheese, at room temperature
• Kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 8 to 10 minutes.
In a large nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally until soft, about 7 minutes. Add the carrots and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Add the peas to the pan and cook for 2 minutes until the peas are warmed through and the carrots are tender. Stir in the cooked pasta. Remove the pan from the heat and add the cheeses. Stir until the mixture is incorporated and forms a sauce. Season with salt, to taste. Transfer to a large serving bowl and garnish with chopped basil.

Honey Dijon Vinaigrette

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
salt and pepper to taste

1. Place all ingredients in a mason jar or any container that can be tightly closed and shake vigorously.
2. Add fresh herbs if using within a week. Add dried herbs if using within a month.
3. Discard after one month.

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