The Groton program brings fresh produce and cooking classes to seniors

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Patricia Coombe tastes the autumn soup made by Peta Madry in the Thrive 55+ summer gardening program healthy cooking class on Tuesday 13th September 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day) Buy photo reprints
Peta Madry tastes to check her seasoning while demonstrating how to make a fall soup for participants in the Thrive 55+ Summer Gardening Program Healthy Cooking Class on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day) Buy photo reprints
Peta Madry sautés onions and celery while demonstrating how to make a fall soup for participants in the Thrive 55+ Summer Gardening Program Healthy Cooking Class on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day) Buy photo reprints
A participant takes notes on her copy of the recipe as Peta Madry, not pictured, demonstrates how to make a fall soup for participants in the Thrive 55+ Summer Gardening Program Healthy Cooking Class on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day ) Buy photo reprints

Groton ― Mystic resident Barbara Daniels has always loved making salads, but now she knows how to prepare raw veggies in a variety of ways to make it fun.

And she cooks more at home now and has tried new vegetables like collards.

Daniels is part of a 12-week pilot program being conducted at the Thrive 55+ Active Living Center, formerly known as the Groton Senior Center, in partnership with the Eastern Connecticut Community Gardens Association. Each week, attendees receive a bag of fresh produce and healthy cooking classes on how to prepare.

“It makes me healthier, but it also gives me satisfaction that I’ve learned how to cook better than myself,” Daniels said.

During the course, the participants learned how to prepare dishes called Just Picked, such as Examples include cauliflower fried rice, eggplant meatballs, fresh salsa, zucchini pie, ratatouille, vegetable soups and spinach dips.

They then go home and replicate the dishes for their own meals, said Tomi Stanley, program leader/volunteer coordinator at Thrive 55+.

Stanley said the Eastern Connecticut Community Gardens Association, a nonprofit organization, approached her about starting the center’s free vegetable share program this summer.

Eunice Sutphen, Director of Outreach at ECCGA, said the idea came about after Thames Valley Sustainable Connections wanted to expand its financial contribution to ECCGA and create a program that would not only provide people with food, but also involve them in the preparation.

Thames Valley Sustainable Connections pays for seeds, equipment and other expenses, and the food is grown at Whitfield’s Giving Garden in Pawcatuck.

About 44 people each week receive vegetables grown using regenerative agriculture, without tillage, pesticides or herbicides, to maximize the produce’s nutritional value and help the soil, Sutphen said.

About 25 to 28 of the people take a cooking class each week, with Peta Madry, Marcia Benvenuti and Erica Benvenuti volunteering their time for cooking classes, Stanley said.

The program provides fresh produce to people who might not otherwise have access to gardens, for example because they live in a small apartment or condominium.

On Tuesday, the final class of the program — which will be followed by a potluck next week — Madry sautéed onions and celery in a skillet at the table at the front of the room, one of the first steps for the fall soup, which she prepared as participants sat at tables and observed their lesson.

Groton resident Mary Fafara said she’s learning how to cook with fresh vegetables and has made soups and a dinner of eggplant meatballs. She’s also picked up cooking tips she never thought of, like adding applesauce as an ingredient in fall soup to make it sweeter.

“We are all here to learn and the teachers have been exceptional,” she said.

Manomoney Subramaniam, who moved to Groton from Singapore last year, said the course has been helpful because she doesn’t have most of the vegetables at home and doesn’t know how to use them. She now knows how to make sauces, ratatouille, corn muffins, and add zucchini and squash to salads.

She said she made a lot of friends too, and people shared tips on how to prepare the vegetables.

Groton’s Sharon Chernesky, who is both a volunteer and a participant, said she’s learning new cooking techniques and enjoying dishes she never thought of, like cauliflower fried rice.

“It was great because you can’t plant a garden where we live, so having fresh vegetables was wonderful,” she said.

“It just allowed me to try different things,” Chernesky added.

Sutphen said organizers hope to reintroduce the program next year and reach more people.

“It’s opened up their palette to new foods that they haven’t tried before, and they’re making better nutritional choices because they realize how good vegetables can be,” added Stanley.

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