SCHENECTADY – Scents of cinnamon, cumin and chili powder filled Schenectady Inner City Ministry’s Community Kitchen on a gray Wednesday afternoon in early April.
The aroma was thanks to a new shared-cooking program organized by chef and SiCM’s food justice initiatives manager, Thomas Schofield.
“The goal really is to communicate in a community environment through the language of food,” Schofield said. “Bringing our diverse community into the kitchen, and instead of having it be a teaching kitchen, where it’s simply just one person lecturing or showing techniques, it’s really having a group of people come in and share how they cook.”
It kicked off earlier this month with a free, 30-minute meal program, which saw a few novice chefs preparing a hearty dinner of spiced and glazed chicken, a vegetable hash and a butternut squash polenta.
In the small bright kitchen, Schofield offered pointers on how to sharpen knives and cut vegetables safely, and demonstrated how to safely debone a chicken. But the program also sparked conversations about attendees’ cooking styles, as well as the use of spices and preparation techniques.
During the session, which went from roughly 3 to 5 p.m., the six attendees broke out into teams to focus on one of the three recipes at different times, and everyone brought a few servings home.
[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”56″ display=”basic_imagebrowser”]Many of the ingredients were sourced locally, including some of the herbs, which were grown by Schenectady Urban Farms, an organization that began as a group aiming to provide city residents with the tools and the space to grow their vegetables and fruit. That work has continued as they became a part of SiCM last year.
“We’re continuing what we’ve been doing, which is providing farm space for members to come and grow in the community,” said farm manager Melissa MacKinnon.
They have three farms in Schenectady — one at Vale Cemetery near the Brandywine entrance, one on Fehr Avenue and another on Hulett Street. At those locations, community members help grow vegetables, flowers and herbs.
Some of the farms also have rabbits and chickens and, as of last year, honeybees.
Members of the farms are required to work there an average of two hours a week.
“This is the time when people are signing up. I believe we are up to just over 40 families. Last year we had 70 families, and so I suspect people tend to think about it more when the weather gets warmer,” MacKinnon said.
When it comes time to harvest, members can take what they need.
“We have a lot of people who are very low-income who really do rely on the food to feed their families,” MacKinnon said. “We also have people who just love to grow in-community, and so we have people who will work there who don’t necessarily harvest very much at all.”
As the growing season gets busy and there’s a surplus of food to harvest, whatever members don’t take is brought to SiCM’s food pantry and also used in the community kitchen.
The farm tends to bring people together from diverse backgrounds, and the community kitchen programs aim to do the same.
“That’s actually something I take from the farms, is their model for this. Melissa and her team do a wonderful job of mixing all sorts of great people … and it’s just fun. It’s fun to learn together,” Schofield said.
The first few weeks of classes focus on 30-minute introductory meals, and Schofield plans to build off that with intermediate and advanced classes down the road, perhaps working with local chefs.
“The 30-minute meals is really just introductory, getting an idea of where people’s knowledge is. I think there are some excellent cooks that can come in and really tie it all together. So we’re hoping to engage the community in this endeavor,” Schofield said.
The classes are free and open to all.
Since both MacKinnon and Schofield came on board at SiCM during the pandemic, they’ve been collaborating on several other programs, all focused on food accessibility and making Schenectady a more sustainable place.
“The overall initiative is to have a self-sufficient Schenectady. Food justice is one part of it. But … Schenectady needs to find a different pathway than it’s been on for all these years,” Schofield said.
To that end, Schenectady Urban Farms is encouraging community members to compost and bring their food scraps to the farms. They aim to grow the composting program in the coming months in hopes that it might generate small business opportunities.
“We’ve seen in other places when — sometimes when it’s by law — that people actually have to do something with food scraps, you get these small businesses started with people picking up the food scraps,” MacKinnon said.
Schofield has been working with farms throughout Schenectady to help supply the food pantry, with help from the state’s Nourish New York program.
“He’s actually purchasing food from local farmers at a fair price for the farmers and then being able to pass that on to the people who come to the food pantries,” MacKinnon said.
As of earlier this month, SiCM planned to expand its mobile food pantries to serve elementary schools in the Schenectady City School District, including Keane, Yates, Martin Luther King and Pleasant Valley. It’s another way for students and parents to have access to the produce and other groceries they might need.
Schofield wants to have pantries at other schools as well.
“I’m hoping that we can be there, we can be accessible, we can deliver unbelievable, fresh produce from Schenectady Urban Farms, we can deliver knowledge of growing from the farms and we can really start to advocate for a greener Schenectady,” Schofield said.
SiCM’s summer meals program, which offers free breakfasts and lunches for those age 18 and under, will be expanding in a sense as well, as each of the Schenectady Urban Farms will become a pickup site.
Schofield and MacKinnon are energized about the impacts these programs and others might have on Schenectady, not only in the short term when it comes to making food more accessible to communities in need but in the long-term as well.
“I think we get giddy when we think about what the future could hold,” Schofield said.
For information on the SiCM food programs, visit sicm.us.