2017 Cook It Forward Grantee Spotlight: Christine Ranieri

Helping Homeless Youth Find A Seat at The Table

In celebration of our 10-year anniversary last year, we here at CulinaryCorps HQ decided to create a new and meaningful way for the organization to grow its mission via the Cook It Forward initiative. Cook It Forward is a micro-grant program open to CulinaryCorps alumni providing $555 in seed funding to help launch an outreach project of their own. This is our small way of giving back to the over 100 chef-volunteers who have given so much over the past decade to make our organization a delicious success.

Today, we are excited to share the outcomes of our first grant recipient, Christine Ranieri. A chef, Registered Dietician, and Houstonian, Christine proposed the creation of a cooking class series for homeless youth ages 18-21 in partnership with the local organization, Covenant House. She worked for nearly a year crafting and launching lesson plans, recipes, and even a grocery store tour. We were truly amazed by the big things she accomplished on such a small budget. Please read on for the outcomes of her ambitious (and delicious) efforts.

Project Title: Covenant House Rites of Passage Cooking and Nutrition Education Program

Alumni Grantee: Christine Ranieri, MS, RD, LD

Christine Ranieri is a culinary school trained chef and a Registered Dietitian. She is currently the Program Manager of the Bionutrition Research Core at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where she designs and implements clinical feeding trials for researchers examining the links between diet and cancer along the cancer continuum.

Location: Houston, Texas

Community Partner: Covenant House Texas

Mission: To deliver nutrition education, and to increase budget meal planning knowledge and cooking proficiency in homeless youths.

Project Description

Covenant House Texas (CHT) has been providing shelter for homeless youth aged 18-21 in Houston, Texas since 1983. They are one of a few service providers in Texas specifically addressing the needs of this age group, with a mission to provide a safe haven while also providing the youth with necessary skills, training and emotional support for them to become self-sufficient adults. CHT operates a short term crisis shelter, a shelter for pregnant and parenting teens, a transitional living program called Rites of Passage (ROP), and an apartment living program for graduates of the ROP program. CHT also provides free medical care, mental health services, substance abuse services, education, job development and vocational training, life skills and spiritual classes, amongst other support services.

With the input of CHT’s medical director, Dr. Albert Hergenroeder, and the clinic’s nurse-manager, Winnie Ombese, and the help a University of Houston dietetic intern, Brittany Link, I developed a six class cooking program that ran from October 2016-April 2017. The classes were held in the ROP building’s recreation room and kitchen, with the exception of the grocery store tour, which was held at a nearby Kroger. The classes covered the following six topics.

  1. October: Sugar Busters Class — Overview of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), hidden sources of sugar in the diet, and best alternatives to SSBs.
  2. November: Breakfast Cooking Class — how to read a recipe, cook eggs, and kitchen safety (knives, hot surfaces, pot handles, and how to store food to maintain freshness and avoid cross-contamination).
  3. January: Grab ‘n’ Go Lunch Cooking Class — mason jar salads, DIY cup o’ noodles, and portion sizes for adults and children.
  4. February: Grocery Store Tour — emphasis on stretching SNAP benefits while maximizing nutrition with shelf stable foods.
  5. March: Healthy Snacks — shopping on a budget, food safety and sanitation (focus on personal and kitchen sanitation, cooking temperatures and proper cooling and storing).
  6. April: Dinner Cooking Class — veggie kebabs, cornmeal crusted veggies with dipping sauce, and two methods for cooking chicken.

Project Metrics

90: total attendees throughout six sessions

10: total toddlers in tow!

12: total recipes prepared

22: fruits and vegetables included in recipes

2: recipes including chickpeas

21: individuals who had never tasted a chickpea before

24: wide-mouth mason jars used for DIY cup o’ noodles

Food For Thought

On the success of the project…

“I think that this project was a successful pilot to determine the best type of nutrition and cooking program to run with this population. There is the undeniable positive impact of getting together in a safe space to prepare and eat nourishing food.”

On making logistical mistakes early on…

“The first activity, a talk about sugar sweetened beverages that did not include any food samples, drew about 12 participants from both the ROP and the crisis housing programs. For the next month’s breakfast class, I prepped for 18 but at least 25 participated. My intern and I were completely swamped, and every last scrap of food was consumed! It was awesome but stressful. Thankfully, the ROP staff helped organize the youths and some of their children into groups, and my primary focus could be on teaching and keeping everyone safe in the kitchen. However, I’m really glad that this happened early on, as it made me streamline the recipes, and recognize that their actual kitchen was not appropriate for teaching. We moved into the dining area for future lessons.”

On the risks of tweaking your vision mid-project…

“Because of the change of venue, I was a bit disappointed that our cooking lessons turned into more assembly projects (threading veggie kebabs, layering cup o’ needles and assembling mason jar salads) that my intern and I would finish cooking in the kitchen. But regardless, at each event, the youth and the counselors told us that they had a lot of fun, and there were always people who tried a new food.

On peer-to-peer leadership…

“There were a few attendees who worked in fast food restaurants, and there were several wonderful opportunities for them to take the reins and lead a small group of their peers.”  

On the reality of budgetary constraints and healthful supermarket choices…

“On our grocery store tour, I was able to gather first-hand knowledge of the budgetary, storage and energy limitations that the youth have at Covenant House. For example, one participant asked, “Is the microwave ravioli in a can good for me? They fill me up, and when they go on sale, I can afford to buy a lot of them.” This was a teachable moment not only for the youth in attendance but for me and my intern as well. While we were both aware of the monetary barriers to healthy eating, this was the first time we needed to weigh the pros and cons of a can of Chef Boyardee in real time. Ultimately, I came down in favor of it. I explained that while there are more healthful choices out there that could be explored, it is a filling, shelf stable, affordable, and pleasurable meal to be enjoyed sometimes, especially when inexpensively supplemented with a piece of fruit, carrots, or canned beans.”

On the sustainability of this pilot projects…

“This project has great potential to be sustainable. In fact, last year I helped  Winnie Ombese and the Covenant House grant writer submit an initial application for a two year grant from the Aetna Foundation for funds to remodel the ROP kitchen, and purchase supplies for two years of cooking classes and for portable group cooking stations. Unfortunately, we were not chosen to submit a full application, but the brainstorming sessions were very valuable and the work will continue.”


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