Grandma's Hands warm tummies and souls
Willie Chambers' heart was touched as he watched his wife Vanessa tenderly teaching some of her grandchildren how to cook, passing down traditions, culture and love with food.
That picture of caring grandmothers in the kitchen was in Willie Chambers' mind as he talked with folks from Wallace Medical Concern, his colleagues at Rockwood CDC and others about improving the nutrition and health of residents of Rockwood and East Multnomah County.
Chambers also huddled with Chuck Smith of the nonprofit Black Food Sovereignty Coalition to further develop the concept of elder Black women being guides for better health, eating habits and strengthening community.
Grandma's Hands was born.
"Let's not lose these beautiful traditions around food and the wisdom grandmas passed down. Food is essential, but it's also comfort," said Lisa Cline, CEO of Wallace Medical Concern, which serves low-income and uninsured residents of East Multnomah County.
The plan was for local grandmothers to get together and develop a menu, sourcing healthy, fresh produce from local Black or Indigenous farmers and share the bounty with Black families in a celebratory, multi-generational, communal meal at Gresham's Sunrise Center.
But the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to that plan before the first onion was chopped.
So rather than shelving the program, Grandma's Hands, like so many other things, quickly pivoted to an online format.
The grandmothers cooking each month come to the Sunrise Center and cook a big meal. They film videos so families can follow along and see their preparation and techniques. At an appointed hour, there is a "live show" with the cooks and where families could chat in break out rooms.
Families can pick up the food cooked at the Sunrise Center, plus recipes and a generous bag of produce.
Vanessa Chambers, one of the featured cooks, said everyone adapted well to the online format and it was a boon for some people, including the elderly who might have had trouble getting to the Sunrise Center for the communal meal.
Along with the bag of food, "we also gave masks, sanitizers, detergent and other supplies," said Vanessa.
The first "season" of Grandma's Hands started in June and wrapped up in January. It resumes in April.
The organizers are talking with local BIPOC farmers to plan what could be planted for the meals in the second season.
Vanessa Chambers said the produce from the local farms was wonderful, "we had some beautiful collard greens."
Everyone hopes that at least some of the meals later next season will be the communal gatherings the group originally planned.
Not surprisingly, Grandma's Hands was a big success and each event was fully subscribed.
"When we first started the program, the first time we had about 25 families. Five months later, 35 families would be signed up by 9 a.m. after I posted the sign-up online," Smith said.
Was there a favorite food? Several people mentioned the succotash was a big hit. That's a dish of lima beans and corn, with countless variations depending on the cook and ingredients at hand.
Vanessa Chambers cooked sauteed cabbage, a favoirte of one of her grandaughters, black beans, corn bread and spare ribs.
The grandmothers altered some of the traditional comfort foods, reducing salt and fat, for example, to make them healthier.
One of the grandmas is a vegetarian and cooked up some veggie kabobs with gluten free corn bread.
"They were pretty good," said Vanessa Chambers. "We tried to make it healthy and festive for everybody."
For the last meal, Mildred Braxton baked her special lemon pound cake.
"We don't normally do treats," Vanessa Chambers confided, but, it was a special ocassion.
The need for healthier eating is great in Rockwood and other parts of East County. Cline said that among Wallace's patients, more than 50% are food insecure.
Better diets, of course, mean better health. Cline said it was helpful for people to see how to cook some possibly unfamiliar foods, such as Brussel sprouts.
"It's important to support people to learn how to cook healthy foods," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that Black people have much higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and other diseases, which can partly be traced to a lack of access to healthy food, which leads to a less healthier diet. Statistics show 23% of Black people ages 50 to 64 have diabetes, compared with 14% of white folks, for example.
Grandma's Hands was funded by a grant submitted by the Rockwood CDC to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
"The grant focused on exposing people to healthy fruits and vegetables, and connect people with local growers," Smith said. It can also be a boon to the BIPOC farmers creating a larger market for their products.
Grandma's Hands recruited the elder cooks at local summer fairs prior to pandemic closures and reaching out to women they already had contact with, Smith said.
Calling Grandma's Hands a "collective gift," The Black Food Sovereignty Coalition said it "has respectfully accepted the honor of being caretakers of Grandma's Hands, recognizing that Grandma's Hands have always been there holding us, sustaining us, and encouraging us."
Celebrate Black History Month
Vanessa Chambers offers up this traditional recipe handed down through her family.
Cabbage with Onions
1 large head of cabbage
1/2 to 1 medium onion
2-3 tablespoons of cooking oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon Bragg Organic Sprinkle 24 Herbs and Spices
1/2 teaspoon Trader Joe's 21 Seasoning Salute
Slice and chop cabbage into approximately 1-2 inch pieces. Slice and chop onion into approximately 1inch pieces.
Heat oil over medium heat. Add the cabbage and onions; cook and stir.
Add seasonings and continue to cook until veggies are hot and firm, but no longer crunchy.
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