Community Kitchens: Good Food, Cooking Skills, Fresh Ideas & New Friends

"When I come to a community kitchen, I gain useful skills and meet new people. I learned how to make a great tangy salad dressing from a neighbor."—An enthusiastic Community Kitchens participant

In community kitchens, we bring people together in a common kitchen and prepare large amounts of food to share. Everyone gets involved in the cooking and cleaning, and we all share the food that is made. In addition to leaving a community kitchen with food—or a belly full—you gain cooking skills, fresh ideas, nutrition awareness and, perhaps best of all, new friends.

There are currently three different types of kitchens running in the Seattle area—after-school cooking programs, community dinners, and cooking in bulk to freeze and eat later.

At the after-school community kitchen programs—located at six high schools, one middle school, and one elementary school—kitchen leaders work with youth to learn how to cook up fresh seasonal foods into delicious meals. "I always thought green stuff was nasty but now I like it," said a young woman at a middle school kitchen. "Who would have thought that kale tasted so good?" she added.

Currently there are four community dinner sites—Rainier Community Center, Southshore K-8, Tiny Tots Child Care, and Rainier Beach High School. In the community dinner model, volunteers come together to decide on a menu, and then shop for the ingredients. A team of volunteers prepare and cook a large meal. Participants represent a broad range of ages and backgrounds. They come together to share their diverse food traditions. Community dinner sites serve anywhere from 60–400 people.

Some community kitchen dinner sites include a Good Food Bag, offering more fresh produce to communities that traditionally have had less access. A typical bag includes 5–8 produce items that were prepared in the meal, allowing participants to go home and recreate the meals in their own kitchens.

To learn how to tailor a kitchen for seniors, here are words of wisdom from Pat Barger, a longtime leader from the Queen Anne Community Center Senior Kitchen:

"I am a volunteer and have been running the Queen Anne Community Center kitchen since 2009. It is a different model than most of the others. People register, pay $25, then come and cook. I test recipes and plan the menu, and staff do the shopping. We are limited to six participants but usually have four or five. We make six recipes and each person takes home two individual servings of each meal item, ready for the freezer.

"Most of the people live nearby. I scale the recipes for two or maybe four servings for them to take home so they can cook the same things at home. The usual pattern is a dish with beef, poultry, pork, or fish; a vegetarian dish; a side dish; and dessert. I choose things that take less than two hours in our kitchen, can be packaged in a Ziploc bag, and are quick and easy to reheat and serve.

"Many of my people need to sit most of the time while they work and are limited in what they can lift or carry. Usually one person cooks one recipe but sometimes I have to pair them so one can do the tasks requiring standing or I do will do these tasks. I have had participants who really don't know much about cooking and I work more closely with these participants and do a sort of tutorial as we work.

"Occasionally we have a month where I invite regulars to suggest recipes from earlier meetings. Sometimes people offer me a favorite recipe from their past and I try to make those work. The way I develop a recipe is this:  I find a recipe that fits my time and budget constraints, cook it at home, and we eat it. I freeze portions and later we eat them to see how they survived the freezing. I have a collection of freezer cookbooks, which are a good resource.

"The 'CK' is one of my favorite projects. I am a senior myself and am well rewarded by the appreciation of my friends who cook with me."

Community Kitchens Northwest is off to a strong start in 2013 with a new full time program manager being hired and expansion in the area of trainings for childcare and school nutrition staff. These trainings use the community kitchen model to teach scratch cooking and the use of seasonal and whole foods.

To learn more about community kitchens and how to start one in your neighborhood, visit the Seattle Tilth's Community Kitchens Northwest webpage.

Seattle Tilth Community Kitchens Northwest coordinator Leika Suzumura holds an undergraduate degree in nutrition from Bastyr University. She has dedicated her career to community nutrition. Diana Vergis Vinh, a public health nurse and community organizer with Public Health—Seattle & King County, helped to establish the first community kitchen in the Seattle area and remains a strong advocate. For more background information, visit Community Kitchens: Cooking Up Community! (Seniors Digest, April 2009).