The Happy Kitchen: Connecting communities and food

Since the beginning of time, we have taken our sustenance from the Earth. From the noble hunter venturing onto the plains with bow and arrow to the pastoralists that roam the Middle East to the farmer whom coaxes life from the seed, the food we eat has served as a bridge between human society and the environment. However, the advent of commercialized farming and pre-packaged food has changed this relationship, and, in some instances, destroyed it completely.

Today’s food often journeys far from where it is initially grown, to factories where it is combined with other foods, packed into plastic, and shipped to urban centers before finally making it into the hands of the consumer, a hundred calories denser and soaked through with extra sugar and unhealthy additives. In large part due to this flood of cheap, processed food, obesity rates have skyrocketed, with a 2010 study reporting obesity rates of over 30% in both male and female adults. Hidden behind this flat rate are significant disparities between socioeconomic and ethnic groups, with people of color and people of low socioeconomic status possessing a greater risk for obesity and other diet-related illnesses.

Such disparities arise in large part due to the proliferation of food deserts in urban areas. Despite the clear importance of diet, most urban spaces are not constructed in a way that adequately incorporates food access as a concern. For example, a 2010 report to Congress estimated that 5.7 million households without a personal vehicle lived over a half mile from a grocery store. Access to food, however, extends beyond being able to easily reach a grocery store. As Ann Fellows, professor of Food Studies at Syracuse University, explains, “Access is the process of allowing and helping people to help themselves…Access to water, access to training, access to credit; all of those things are part of access, if access is defined in terms of producing your own food.”

One organization working to close the gap in food accessibility in Austin, Texas is The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre. Started in the 1990s as a Spanish-only organization, The Happy Kitchen has since grown into a bilingual, multiethnic group that focuses on teaching participants how to obtain and prepare healthy and inexpensive meals.

“We’re all about food access, touching everything that happens from seed to plate.”  Recounts program director, Molly Costigan. “We focus on growing, sharing, and preparing, and the Happy Kitchen is mainly focused on preparing.”

Offering twenty-four cooking series a year, The Happy Kitchen opens its doors to all but especially targets communities of low-income and of high-risk for diet-related illnesses. Rather than simply giving out food, as a typical food bank does, the Happy Kitchen engages participants in expense-free lessons concerning how to shop for and prepare healthy food options on a budget. Students commit to one ninety minute class a week, often held in nearby, easily-accessed churches, schools, and community centers. Over six weeks, facilitators engage their students in an interactive learning experience through cooking demonstrations, conversations about food labels and healthy, fresh alternatives, and the opportunity to bring free groceries home to practice.

“Participants are really thinking of themselves more of as cooks because of that model.” Costigan adds. “You know, folks can go home and make the recipe for their families and add chicken to the vegetable rice because their husband wanted meat on the plate or they can add nuts to their muffins to make them more filling.”

Past participant and current facilitator, Lindsay Upson, agrees. Upson decided to take part in The Happy Kitchen after moving to Austin in an attempt to meet new people and expand her culinary skill-set. She quickly found much more than that. “While participating in The Happy Kitchen,” Upson relates, “One finds that it is a gateway to local farmers markets, gardening co-ops, additional cooking lessons, and agricultural legislation…We all know we should eat healthier, but, for each of us, there is a barrier that prevents us from doing so. The Happy Kitchen tries to remove those barriers.”

From tiny roots, The Happy Kitchen has become a driving force of change in central Texas. With over 90% of participants reporting back that that they use food labels to make healthier food choices, eat more fruits and vegetables, eat less sodium, and eat more lean proteins after completing a program, it’s clear that The Happy Kitchen truly has lived up to its name.

“We’re very much a central Texas, Austin-area organization.” Costigan pronounces proudly. “We feel that that’s where we can best connect with communities and where we can best reach people, but we have worked with other grassroots, community-based organizations to implement our curriculum in their communities.”

This deep-rooted connection can be seen through The Happy Kitchen’s longstanding collaboration with local farmers markets, as well as the regional and cultural finesse of their lessons. By placing an emphasis on seasonal foods and by offering bilingual programs, The Happy Kitchen truly encapsulates the needs of the Austin community.

Most importantly, The Happy Kitchen succeeds in forwarding discussions of food accessibility to a demographic often excluded from such conversations. “We need more spaces where people can have a conversation about the problems and become engaged in the answers.” Dr. Fellows states. “Becoming engaged in the answers means becoming engaged in helping your own particular community.”

The Happy Kitchen does just that by opening a forum through which participants can converse and engage in discussions of food accessibility and work towards solutions on both an individual and a community level. By investing participants in their own diet and forging connections between students and their food, The Happy Kitchen is slowly closing the gap of food accessibility by taking steps backwards, past the plastic packaging and distant farms to a time when people were deeply rooted in the land. It is a return to those environmental connections that sustained us for years and will continue to carry us into future generations.

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