12/10/2012 13:33 BST | Updated 11/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Taking a Class at Huntington's Kitchen

Flickr: longwoodblogs

Story by Rebecca Maclean

I recently had the opportunity to make a rare work trip to Huntington, West Virginia. Since Pittsburgh is only a five-hour drive away from Huntington, I assumed that it had similar characteristics to my hometown, technically the largest city in Appalachia. While our accents were different, the warmth of the people in Huntington was definitely not.

The town's welcoming atmosphere was evident everywhere, but especially in Huntington's Kitchen, the closest thing to Mecca for a food policy geek like me. I was thrilled when I learned that I was staying a block away from the community kitchen Jamie Oliver initially established as part of his Food Revolution series. While signs at the Kitchen noted that they were open by appointment only, I contacted the nutritionist on staff who invited me to sit in on a cooking class the evening before I headed out of town. Twist my arm!

While this particular class was designed for bariatric patients, both the information discussed and the recipes cooked were relevant to all. The class was also free of charge (sponsored by local health care entities and a national nutrition program), a necessity in an area where almost 30% of the residents live below the poverty line, almost double the state average - and more than double the national average.

A Nutrition Discussion and Hands-On Cooking Demonstration

I joined my fellow students for a two-part lesson: a nutrition discussion and hands-on cooking demonstration. My cooking partner was taking the series of classes both to support his wife after her bariatric surgery and to improve his own health as a diabetic. Other participants were learning how to manage their cooking post-surgery. Some are also struggling to cook at home for only themselves when they were used to cooking for families. The cooking demo was run by a volunteer from Marshall University's dietetics program, another community partner in the Kitchen.

The class ran smoothly - stations already prepped, recipes at the ready, our instructor friendly and knowledgeable - and the meal was done before we knew it. Along the way, we learned some tricks for stripping thyme, how to chiffonade mint, and how to time the different components of the meal.

This meal - Indian spiced chicken breast, skillet roasted cauliflower and squash, peach salsa, and herbed couscous - wasn't quite a 30-minute meal, but it was perfectly manageable for a weekday evening in a busy house. Emphasis was also placed on portion sizes that correspond to the USDA's MyPlate standards. And, the true test - everyone ate what they had cooked, and took home leftovers.

I wasn't the only interloper - Brent Cunningham, a NY-based journalist who with his wife is researching a book on the food landscape in Huntington post-Jamie Oliver - observed the class. Between his West Virginia roots and my membership in Steeler Nation, the locals in the class welcomed us both.

There are also changes in the city overall. Several new restaurants, many with a focus on local products, are popping up in downtown Huntington. And The Wild Ramp, a volunteer-run local foods store a few blocks away from Huntington's Kitchen, is growing by leaps and bounds.

It's possible that these changes are coincidental, but I think they are capitalizing on the heightened awareness of healthy eating started by the presence of Huntington's Kitchen. More healthy food options are never a bad thing!

About the author: Rebecca Maclean (@foodmeonce) is a food policy blogger whose interests lie at the intersection of urban gardening, food security, and public health. She writes at and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Digging Deep Campaign. Rebecca wrangles a husband, two kids, and several raised beds in her spare time.