“There’s nothing more real than handing someone a plate of food — you can’t connect on a deeper level,” Jen Perry, nutrition development coordinator at The Open Door, says, describing what she felt the first time she volunteered to serve a community meal.
“The first time I came (to the Open Door) I loved the experience; I returned every week until they hired me.”
That was nine years ago; Perry was 25. What began as a part-time position — managing the meals on Saturdays — evolved quickly to managing the entire community meal program, which itself has transformed since Perry’s first days. There are fewer pans of heavy-starch dinners and more balanced, nutrition-conscious dishes. Around 2006, a serious focus on nutrition emerged, mandated by the guests themselves, who knew their diets needed to improve.
“The guests knew they needed to eat differently,” Perry said. “The older adult guests were requesting better nutrition; many had diabetes and oral health issues.”
“We started asking the churches and organizations who provided our meals to change one element at a time.”
Beginning with bread, Open Door staff began requesting that groups who provided meals offer only whole wheat breads. Next they asked providers to make all milk lowfat. Fresh fruit or fresh fruit desserts replaced cakes and cookies next.
“This past year we began the most extensive requests: fewer pastas and more lean meats,” Perry said, an important shift for diabetics.
In the mean time, in response to a guest survey, The Open Door installed a salad bar, providing fresh vegetables, fruit and a lean protein option at every meal.
The Open Door’s summer lunch program, with sites organized around the city where kids can receive a bag lunch, eliminated juice in favor of fresh fruit; again, breads are whole grain; dairy is lowfat; chips and trans-fats are absent.
“The low-income are the most at risk to be sick, and the least able to manage their disease through diet ... That’s why I love what I do,” Perry says, “ trying to make good nutrition accessible; it’s not about free food; it’s about free nutrition.”
Perry and her staff developed the following recipe as a sample to be served at The Open Door’s Mobile Market. The Mobile Market program sets up a look-a-like farmers market in low-income neighborhoods, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables directly into communities, getting people outside to gather them, and taste samples, an imaginative way to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into people’s diets. Perry looks for recipes that list ingredients available in the Food Pantry; if something isn’t, Perry hopes that the money a Mobile Market participant is saving on free produce may be used to purchase that odd ingredient, like mint or feta cheese that a recipe may require.
This brilliant green appetizer packs lessons for all of us: it’s eye-catching lovely. It makes magic of an ordinary grocery staple — frozen peas cooked briefly with garlic, then mashed roughly or pureed. Spread on a slice of toasted baguette, topped with a dot of ricotta cheese and a radish slice, this is a snack, appetizer, or light lunch evocative of farm stands, Mediterranean diets, and boutique purist chefs. Simple whole foods beautifully presented; every neighborhood needs these.
Jen Perry’s Pea, Radish and Ricotta Bruschetta
8 slices baguette, thinly sliced
8 ounces frozen peas
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves (or
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
2/3 cup ricotta cheese
4 radishes, trimmed, halved and thinly sliced
Toast the baguette slices in a preheated 375-degree oven until crisped.
2. Warm a large skillet over medium heat.
3. Add olive oil and garlic, and saute until garlic turns light golden. Stir in defrosted peas and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook for three minutes. Remove from heat as soon as peas are tender and bright green. Lightly mash with a fork or puree in a food processor, leaving the mixture slightly chunky.
4. Put the ricotta in a small bowl and mix in measured salt and pepper.
5. To serve, spread an equal amount of pea mixture over each slice of bread. Top with a dollop of ricotta and slightly press into the peas. Top with two slices of radish.
Recipe courtesy of Jen Perry, nutrition development coordinator, The Open Door, 2012.
Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times’ Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at www.heatheratwood.com.