Jeanne Pennypacker demonstrates a cooking technique to Audrey Gedwee. (Emily Benson photo)
Jeanne Pennypacker demonstrates a cooking technique to Audrey Gedwee. (Emily Benson photo)

On April 11, four women chopped peppers, diced green onions and grilled up black bean burgers in the kitchen of St. Luke’s parish center in Schenectady.

The day of culinary creation was the second installment of the parish’s new cooking classes, sponsored by St. Luke’s Daily Bread food pantry and in cooperation with Eat Smart New York, a program of Cornell University Cooperative Extension.

Jeanne Pennypacker is a community nutrition educator for Eat Smart New York and runs the cooking course at St. Luke’s. She said the course is designed for families and individuals who use the food pantry. The class uses foods distributed at the food pantry so individuals can learn how to cook with them.

“Some people show up [who] know how to cook; some don’t,” Mrs. Pennypacker explained. “Last week, we learned how to hold a knife, how to cut with a knife, and we made rosemary potatoes.”

Trying it out
Marcy Palkovic is a patron of the food pantry. She said she took the course “to be able to utilize food pantry items” in her cooking.

“I’ve tried cooking different recipes before. I didn’t know what I was doing,” she explained. Once, she bought kale, but ended up freezing most of it because she didn’t know how to properly cook it.

Audrey Gedwee, a parishioner of St. Luke’s, doesn’t use the food pantry but heard about the cooking course and wanted “to learn different recipes, and different ways to cook.”

For parishioner Donna Fluck, it was her second time trying the class. She said she only goes to the food pantry when she needs something: “I haven’t gone since February, but it’s great.”

The cooking classes were born almost accidentally out of the renovations done to St. Luke’s parish center, which the parish calls a pastoral center, and the Daily Bread food pantry that’s located next door.

Healthy ideas
Mrs. Pennypacker said part of her job with Eat Smart New York is to connect with local food pantries to help inform and educate patrons on how to eat healthy for less money, and how to make best use of one’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

In 2017, Mrs. Pennypacker saw that St. Luke’s had added onto its food pantry and had installed a new kitchen. After talking with the parish, she set up a table at the pantry, handing out nutritional information and asking if people would be interested in learning more about healthy cooking.

After enough interest was generated, Mrs. Pennypacker began giving out flyers for a cooking class.

“To be able to start something where you can actually go in and have a kitchen to use, I was beside myself happy,” she told The Evangelist.

Maryjane Smith, director of Daily Bread, said the renovations by the parish came from an increase in locals coming to the pantry for assistance: “Today, we served about 20 to 22 families, and that’s not a lot for us. That’s a slow day.”

According to Newsweek, 42.6 million Americans received SNAP benefits last year. The federal government has proposed cutting SNAP by $213 billion — more than 30 percent — over the next decade.

That worries Ms. Palkovic. She’s grateful for the food pantry and the cooking classes.

At the most recent class, participants made a black bean salad and black bean burgers. Mrs. Pennypacker made sure the whole group was engaged, asking for volunteers to slice tomatoes, chop cilantro or measure out breadcrumbs.

While cooking, she would include little lessons along the way: Rinsing canned black beans will reduce the sodium content by 40 percent; throwing lettuce into a bath of ice water will make the leaves more crisp; microwaving a lime makes it easier to juice.

Yum, yum
At the end of the class, the women enjoyed their meals in the large gathering space in the pastoral center.

“Isn’t that great?” said Ms. Palkovic, holding up her black bean burger. “It’s made from cans of beans!”

While eating, Mrs. Pennypacker passed out copies of the recipes and pamphlets on nutrition, and talked about what they learned while cooking.

She hopes to offer the course for four more weeks and then evaluate whether it should continue or be changed. “It takes time” for word to get out about classes like these, she said.

In the meantime, the class will go on.

“The cooking is the fun part; the tasting is fun part,” she said. “We talk, we laugh and we have fun.”

(For more information or to register for a class, call Mrs. Pennypacker at 518-265-4507.)