Class at Aurora food pantry focuses on cooking healthy food

Class at Aurora food pantry focuses on cooking healthy food

Angie Cornelius of Sheridan elected to stop by the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry in Aurora Saturday morning to learn more about cooking farm-to-table food.

“I have a large garden and I love cooking and everything about fresh food and hyper-local, hyper-seasonal things,” Cornelius said as she sat on some bleachers inside the garden at the pantry for an outdoor cooking class. “I work in the produce department of a small store in DeKalb County and I’m totally interested in this and love that it’s held in a garden.”

The Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry offered more than just nutritional support Saturday as a three-hour pop-up market was held at the facility at 835 N. Highland Ave. beginning at 10 a.m.

A Women’s Health Day program included giveaways of feminine products, underwear and body and bath care items as well as the chance to learn more about nutrition and how to prepare fresh food.

Beginning at 11 a.m., local chef and dietician student Julia Rudnicki offered an hour-long demonstration focused on using fresh herbs that were used to infuse flavor into what food bank officials said was a “cowboy caviar summer bean salad” made with herbs and other products plucked right from the food bank’s garden.

Rebekah Axtell, communications specialist for the pantry, said this was the third year that farm-to-table cooking classes have been held in the pantry’s garden and that Saturday’s class “was open to everyone.”

“We didn’t require registration for this class and wanted it to be open to anyone in the public,” Axtell said Saturday. “We’re having a cooking class today as part of our Health Day event and we wanted to offer a plant-based dish with the theme of cowboy caviar which is a vegetable and bean salad.”

Axtell said the program was organized, in part, to address concerns from some who visit the food pantry.

“We’ve had pantry guests that have specifically said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a chronic health condition. I need to figure out how to reduce my salt and sugar, but I still want my food to taste good’ and have said they were very interested in learning how to cook with herbs,” Axtell said.

She added that guests Saturday would first harvest their own herbs in the food pantry’s garden including cilantro and basil and parsley “followed by teaching them how to use those herbs and in what proportions in their salads without the addition of so many preservatives, salts and sugars.”

Rebekah Axtell, communications specialist for Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry in Aurora, left, helps Daniya Abdulhmed, 15, of Oswego, harvest a golden beet from the garden at the pantry before a cooking class on Saturday. (David Sharos / For The Beacon-News)
Rebekah Axtell, communications specialist for Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry in Aurora, left, helps Daniya Abdulhmed, 15, of Oswego, harvest a golden beet from the garden at the pantry before a cooking class on Saturday. (David Sharos / For The Beacon-News)

The classes held at the pantry have attracted a range of experienced versus first-time cooks.

“There are all levels of cooking including people who have never been in a vegetable garden before or have harvested something like an onion right out of the ground – those are the golden moments for us,” Axtell said.

“I think people appreciate the inspiration … and leading them step-by-step,” Axtell said of the classes. “They leave with the recipe, they’re inspired, they had a hands-on time picking herbs in the garden and they’re going to know what to do when that fresh produce comes in later in the season.”

Joyce Healey of Aurora said she has passed the garden many times and elected to stop for the first time on Saturday.

When told the food at the class would be prepared using things directly from the garden, Healey was more than enthusiastic.

Local chef Julia Rudnicki greets guests at the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry in Aurora Saturday morning during a one-hour class that focused on cooking nutritious food. (David Sharos / For The Beacon-News)
Local chef Julia Rudnicki greets guests at the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry in Aurora Saturday morning during a one-hour class that focused on cooking nutritious food. (David Sharos / For The Beacon-News)

“That’s excellent. I mean, fresh from the garden, you can’t get any better than that,” she said.

Healey admitted that she, along with others, “definitely want to eat healthier.”

“The older I get the more I have to do it,” she said. “I garden and do tomatoes and lettuce but I want to learn more.”

Nancy Montana of St. Charles admitted she has health problems and was looking to learn more about nutrition.

“I hope to get a nice, good summer recipe that I can make at home for myself and my daughter. We’re both vegetarians and this sounded like the place to be,” she said. “I know people are eating healthier and for me, I have a cancer diagnosis and I’ve given up meat and dairy. I have four chickens and eat eggs and know where they come from. I’m trying to watch my health.”

Food pantry officials said that future cooking classes will be held in the garden at 6 p.m. July 5, 11 a.m. July 13, 6 p.m. July 26, 11 a.m. July 27 and 6 p.m. Aug. 30.

David Sharos is a freelance reporter for The Beacon-News.

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