The Currency of Kindness

For 40 years BriarPatch has been a resource that so many people rely upon for fresh, locally sourced, healthful food. Fully 12 percent of Nevada County’s residents, though, are living at or below the federal poverty level (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013), and for them, practicing good nutrition and accessing healthful food can be compromised by financial crises or homelessness, and by social or emotional barriers they find it difficult to overcome.
“That’s why we meet with local program directors – to find out where there are still gaps and where BriarPatch can have a positive impact,” explained Margaret Campbell, BriarPatch Marketing Manager. “When BriarPatch can add value to a program, we work out the details and test different ways of contributing until we find a solution that is sustainable and works out positively for everyone.”
Hospitality House
For example, when Hospitality House, Grass Valley’s year-round homeless shelter, was struggling after the expiration last year of the federal funding that supported most of their programs, BriarPatch offered to fund their culinary job-training dinners. “That not only helped us to sustain the program, it enabled us to take a significant step in providing a greater depth, instructional development, and conceptualization for lesson plans,” explained Chef Jeff Olson, who in addition to teaching the program also founded it in May 2014. The program accepts three to five students at a time and provides them with the skills necessary to find employment in the food industry, while also teaching them the fundamentals of good nutrition. Throughout the six-week program, students are tasked with providing nutritionally balanced menus for student chef dinners that must not only provide a certain caloric intake, but also the proper ratio of simple and complex carbohydrates, fats, and protein.
So how does the partnership work exactly? In short, students shop at BriarPatch for the food they need to prepare their student chef dinners on most Wednesday nights. And the results speak for themselves, as proud students serve their restaurant-quality meals to a full dining room of Hospitality House clients, many of whom are disabled, veterans, single parents, or children. If kindness were a currency, then the check for each meal (if there was one) would be paid in full with the smiles and expressions of gratitude that the chefs receive on these nights.
Chef Jeff further explained how students are adding value to the community beyond the Shelter. By graduating students with a fluency, knowledge, and appreciation for ingredients and their preparation, and for the labor and thought involved in getting those ingredients from their source to the dinner plate, “we draw attention from local restaurants looking to hire qualified food-service workers who share the same forward-thinking progressive ideals as the BriarPatch,” he said.
To date, 40 culinary students have graduated from the program, with 80 percent of them being hired. And in most cases, finding gainful employment also means qualifying for permanent housing opportunities as well—win-win!
Interfaith Food Ministry
We see another example of exceptional community collaboration in the programs and services of Interfaith Food Ministry (IFM). This non-profit organization serves Western Nevada County’s working-poor families, seniors, homeless, and children who are in need of food. With a mission to feed the hungry and work to reduce food insecurity*, IFM coordinates its efforts with area agencies and businesses so they can identify the needs of their clients and serve them in the best way possible.
A case in point is IFM’s cooking classes, which they created once they understood that many clients lacked the cooking skills to prepare their weekly food allocations at home. “We applied for and were accepted to receive one of BriarPatch’s grants for $300 three years ago,” explained Sue Van Son, IFM Executive Director. “This is what kick-started our first cooking class,” she said, adding that the cooking classes are now offered quarterly by Wendy Van Wagner of Nevada County Public Health (NCPH), and were attended by 110 clients last year alone at the IFM facility in Grass Valley.
Understanding that illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension are associated with poverty, IFM and NCPH worked together to develop a survey for IFM clients to complete. The survey results enabled them to adopt a nutrition policy that would guide IFM purchases and food distribution efforts to support healthy lifestyles. The survey results also educated them as to their clients’ eating practices and preferences, with 80% of those surveyed stating that their favorite healthy foods were fresh fruits (53%) and vegetables (41%), making these among the foods they were most likely to use at home. Happy to respond, IFM again connected with BriarPatch—this time to begin offering fresh, local, and seasonal organic produce once a month during their new Saturday distributions as part of a six-month trial that began in May. Moving forward, IFM hopes to expand their cooking classes and continue to deepen the impact of their nutrition policy.
Briarpatch Co-op community Cooking School with silver SpringS High School
and Grizzly Hill Elementary
In addition to supporting these and other community cooking programs, BriarPatch offers an incredible array of cooking classes of its own at the BriarPatch Co-op Community Cooking School, on Zion Street in Nevada City. Classes are taught by a variety of talented chefs who offer more than just instruction in how to prepare food—they also provide an opportunity to connect with the world around us through the food we eat. This is what attracted Marty Mathiesen to the program after it was suggested as a way to enhance the experience of his students after they toured the Co-op three years ago. As the Principal of Silver Springs High School, a continuation school offering alternative education in Grass Valley, Mathiesen is always on the lookout for opportunities to enrich the experience of kids he says are “breaking the cycle” in which “they literally have had no capacity (until now) to learn the essential healthy things in life, as it just passes them by.”
To address the barriers to health and nutrition, the Silver Springs faculty designed a class on the essentials of nutrition and eating. Mathiesen approached Hilary Dart, BriarPatch’s Outreach Manager, for another tour to complement the class. But instead of a tour, Hilary suggested that students attend a BriarPatch cooking class, and the rest, as they say, is history. This year 10 classes were scheduled, running about two hours each. “Kids are responding to it because it’s fun,” Mathiesen explained. “They first go into it because it sounds kinda cool and there’s a free lunch, but then they get into it, and want to come back.” Approximately 60 kids have attended the BriarPatch Community Cooking School.
Depending on the class, chefs explore many things: the sources of food; the cultural history of a particular food’s origin and why it’s prepared a certain way; the impact of spices and how they work; or the health benefits of eating dishes prepared with organic ingredients, to name just a few. Students also learn that it’s more economical to buy and prepare good food as opposed to eating fast food, which offers little to no return in terms of health benefits. This all fits in with the model of alternative education that Mathiesen and his staff work to cultivate, along with the trust and confidence of their students. For whatever reasons students attend Silver Springs High School, Mathiesen is proud to say that “many kids are now choosing to come here because of what we have to offer.”
BriarPatch has also hired chefs from the Co-op Cooking School to go out into the community to support outreach programs, such as those at Grizzly Hill Elementary School. Earlier this year, Chef Deanna Figueira taught a hummus-making class at Grizzly Hill that received positive reviews from the students in 5th through 8th grades. She said that almost every kid in her four groups loved it, and that most of them asked to take home the leftovers. “We talked about how homemade food is usually much better than store-bought,” she added.
Through cooperative partnerships and outreach efforts like these, the BriarPatch community is impacting the lives of many, including those who could be our neighbors, friends, co-workers, and relatives, but who may not want us to know they are in need. To learn more about these and other community outreach programs that BriarPatch is involved with, contact Margaret Campbell at

*Food Insecurity is defined by Nevada County Public Health as “having limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” (United States Department of Agriculture.)

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