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6 Volunteers Who Make a Big Difference and How You Can, Too

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Mary Kay Gehring — Get in the Kitchen and Cook

Mary Kay Gehring's students rarely know how to cut up an onion. Most don't know how to hold a knife. So the former chef from Portland, Ore., starts with the most basic of basics: "Here's how you hold a knife; here's how you chop." Then, says Gehring, "while we're chopping and cooking, I'm talking about nutrition and how much stuff costs in the store."

It all matters. Gehring's students are mainly young mothers struggling with challenges such as drug dependence and job instability, and Gehring's weekly classes — sponsored by the antihunger group Share Our Strength — help them learn how to keep themselves and their families healthy.

The fun starts with a simple two-bean chili. Gehring then moves on to the intricacies of making pasta, oven-fried chicken, and pizza from scratch. Along the way, the 54-year-old — who began volunteering in 2004 after repetitive-stress injuries ended her chef work — dispenses budget and shopping tips: Buy chicken whole and cut it up yourself. Shop the store perimeter for fresh foods. Avoid the packaged-food aisles.

"The students love the positive feedback, the attention," Gehring says. "We're not talking about their drug use; we're not talking about their issues. We're talking about the carrots." And, of course, the onions. "One of the things I teach is that if you start by caramelizing your onions, they just meld into the dish."

Though Gehring once delighted in creating fancy dishes at high-end restaurants, she says she always wanted to cook "real food for real people." Her gratification comes from teaching others to learn how to — and love — preparing food themselves.

After one of her earliest classes, "a woman came up and hugged me," Gehring recalls. "She said, 'When I first started this class, all I could do was open a box of cereal. Now I know how to read a recipe!' "

How it works. Help low-income families learn to cook more nutritiously. If you're a culinary master or a licensed nutritionist, lead a class. Otherwise, become a class assistant and help with food prep and other tasks.
Time it takes.
Two-hour class sessions once a week for six weeks.
Contact. Go to Share Our Strength online or call 800-969-4767.

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