Food insecurity in the Houston region more than doubled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and children are particularly at risk in households without enough to eat. But a Houston-area nonprofit is providing one solution through so-called food literacy.
On a recent day at Gatlins barbecue in the Heights, a gaggle of kids waits patiently to add chicken to a fryer. Working with these little cooks isn’t something master chef Michelle Wallace is used to. The kitchen at Gatlin’s is part of Restaurant U, a partnership with the local restaurant association and Homemade Hope, a nonprofit that helps increase food literacy for at-risk kids.
Thirteen million children are expected to suffer from food insecurity this year, according to Feeding America. And Texas ranks 14th nationwide for states with very low food security according to pre-pandemic data compiled by the USDA.
Communities of color and people living in food deserts with a lack of fresh food options are even more at risk.
“It can propel the household and individuals into food insecurity, said Dr. Shreema Sharma, professor of epidemiology at UT Health. She says having information about cooking and preparing meals helps families include more fresh food in their diet. That’s where programs like Restaurant U come in.
“Where food literacy comes into play is when these things start becoming generational.”
Homemade Hope also conducts virtual cooking classes for families to help form new habits that prioritize cooking with fresh food. They acknowledge that fresh meat and produce can be expensive and hard to obtain. But they also say knowing what to do with food that may come from a food bank or community garden is essential to overcoming food insecurity.
Back at Gatlins, owner and pitmaster Chris Gatlin is plating food for the kids.
Gatlin says another aspect of food literacy is helping children to connect with how their ancestors fed their families.
“We can’t let the history and the culture go away,” he said.
Gatlin wants to pass on his knowledge to the kids in the program just as he did in the Netflix series “High on the Hog,” about the history of African American cuisine.
This was the inaugural Restaurant U, and while much of it focused on preparing and cooking food, it also sought to teach the kids about entrepreneurship by introducing them to people like Gatlin.
At the end of the day, the kids gathered to share a group prayer before digging into the meal they helped prepare. For them it was more than a chance to dine on some tasty barbecue, it was planting the seeds that will grow into future meals around a shared table.