For one of her courses at Bauman College in Berkeley, Calif., Allison O’Brien, who grew up in Monmouth Junction, N.J., was charged with engineering a business plan, putting into practice its teachings on the value of holistic nutrition and culinary arts.
Over the course of a month, O’Brien built the foundation of the Garden State Community Kitchen, a plan to give New Jersey kids hands-on experience in gardening, natural cooking, nutrition science, and fitness. “The idea is that with hands-on experience in all of these areas, they’ll have the tools they need to maintain the lifestyle beyond the program,” O’Brien says. “I originally wanted to work on the obesity epidemic in New Jersey, but thankfully this community is smaller than it is in other places. So I began extending it to people who just wanted to get healthier.”
O’Brien launched the program in May 2013, thanks in part to some key partnerships that gave her the resources and the space she needed. She partnered with facilities and organizations throughout the region, including David Zaback, who gave her access to his Z Food Farm in Lawrenceville, N.J., Anthony Carter’s Breakthrough Fitness, Crossroads North Middle School Atrium Garden, and South Brunswick Township, among others. “I’d teach the kids how to plant and grow, and we’d take whatever grew back to our kitchen,” O’Brien says.
After waiting for more than a year, last month the nonprofit received its 501(c)(3) status, which was a giant step for GSCK. While they are currently crowdfunded and do a bit of juggling to pull together enough facilities to host the program and fulfill each of its four core missions, O’Brien’s big-picture plan consolidates everything in one place. “My five-to-10-year idea is to raise enough money to rent or purchase a facility where we can run the program in its entirety,” she says.
While each of the four components is essential to O’Brien’s vision, she hopes to educate the community on the wealth of produce New Jersey has to offer right in its own backyard. “There’s this misconception that in order to eat healthy you have to spend more.
“As a result, people aren’t eating locally, and they aren’t eating vegetables,” O’Brien says. “A lot of people shy away because they don’t know how to prepare meals. If people know how easy it is, then a real difference can be made. I don’t just want to distribute meals—I want people to make their own meals and for those meals to be healthy.”
While the classes aren’t about huge revelations or major “aha!” moments, O’Brien says the cumulative experience can be life changing. “The classes are an experience of togetherness, of friendship. We become a little family, all pushing hard to get the meals out on time and clean up and get out of there,” she says.
“It is one of those experiences where you’re not really aware of the change because it takes a long time, but then you look back, and it’s hard not to be amazed by what we can accomplish.”
However, the experience isn’t all sunshine and perfection. For the kids, much of the learning takes place somewhere between trial and error. “There was the time the dishwasher nearly covered the floor of the kitchen in suds because the kids used too much dish detergent,” O’Brien recalls.
“It was the individual moments that made it special.”
For the summer 2014 program, which runs July 7 – August 29, the Sandhills Community Wellness Center in Kendall Park, N.J. (about 20 minutes from Princeton) is the partner. This year, O’Brien plans to take children on for a minimum of two weeks or a maximum of eight weeks. She is currently in the process of fundraising in an effort to cover the $36,000 (before staff salary) it takes to run the program.