MICHIGAN CITY – Residents of the city’s Eastport neighborhood took part in a tasty lesson last week – the first in a series of healthy cooking classes using ingredients grown in the Walker Park Community Garden.

The inaugural class was taught at the garden by Chef Erik Tannehill, who demonstrated preparation of pesto veggie pasta with chicken. The demonstration used a new mobile kitchen facility purchased by the Franciscan Health Foundation with a $5,000 grant from the Duneland Health Council.

The class is an outgrowth of the Walker Park Community Garden, a joint effort of Franciscan Health Michigan City and Purdue Extension, which is partially funded by a community development block grant through Michigan City.

Land for the 24-bed garden, which includes 12 U-pick beds for residents, along with individual family beds, is donated by the Michigan City Parks and Recreation Department.

Sister Petra Nielsen, vice president of mission integration for the hospital, said food insecurity was identified as a major community need, prompting Franciscan's involvement in creation of the garden last year. To help residents learn to plant and care for the garden, Franciscan helped fund the master gardener position.

“As an extension of this community garden project, we’re working with Purdue Extension to educate the residents on how to use the foods in the garden to make healthy and tasty recipes for their families,” Nielsen said.

Tannehill’s focus in the first class was on using fresh herbs. He plucked basil and lemon balm directly from the garden to use in a pesto sauce, which he tossed with fresh vegetables, chicken and tortellini.

After sampling the finished dish, participants took home a copy of the recipe, an Aldi gift card, and a shopping list of ingredients to supplement those from the garden.

The pilot program will continue with four more sessions, each highlighting a different ingredient from the garden.

Jamie Clark, whose family has a plot in the garden, thought the class was a great opportunity “to get everybody together to trade ideas. We just traded some information about swapping seeds for different varieties of tomatoes.”

Caroline Arnett, community wellness coordinator with Purdue Extension, said she thought the first class “went really well” and was optimistic the pilot program could be expanded to a wider audience in the future.

“We’re really focusing this year on education, not just the nutrition part like cooking, but having a master gardener, so really helping to provide a skill set that we all need,” she said.

Resident participation in the garden has tripled from last year, Arnett said. It now includes a “lead bed” with fruits and vegetables that help combat lead poisoning. Signage is also being put up to let area residents know what is ready to pick.

In the future, Sister Petra said Franciscan hopes to partner with other organizations to provide the mobile kitchen for other educational programs with a focus on healthy eating. The kitchen includes cooking and food prep surfaces, oven, refrigerator and portable sink, and can be run using a generator or A/C power.

Duneland Health Council Executive Director Camie White said her agency is honored to provide the funding for the mobile kitchen.

“We join the Franciscan Alliance in the belief that healthy food preparation and healthy eating provide a strong foundation for a healthier and happier community," she said.

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