A new health literacy series brings cooking and exercise classes to a library near you.
The rain pours down outside the central branch of the Sonoma County Library in downtown Santa Rosa. But, inside the library’s community room, the smell of leeks sautéed in homemade vegetable stock permeates the air with a warm and cozy energy.
Eleven women (and one late arrival—a man—who can’t seem to believe his luck that he’s stumbled upon a cooking class in an unexpected place) watch as Jill Nussinow, a Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) cooking instructor and registered dietician, preps celery root, purple cabbage, Tatsoi, cilantro, and parsnips—all winter vegetables purchased at local farmers’ markets. Personable and obviously relishing the joy of kitchen improvisation, Nussinow talks up the making of the simple stew like it’s no big thing. Her attitude is anyone can cook without much stress, and maybe even have a little bit of fun while they’re at it. In a chef’s jacket with sleeves lined in bright, vegetable-printed fabric, the silver pony-tailed cook relays stories of farmers markets’ greatest hits with the enthusiasm of a sportscaster replaying a Superbowl touchdown. (“I bought a bok choy the end of the market for $2 that was so big and I took it home and made a delicious spicy kraut!”)
“We are lucky to have so many vegetables available in the winter,” says Nussinow as she preps a tasty-looking winter slaw. “These aren’t imported from another country, they come from right here.” The class gasps with awe when the veggie queen reveals the lovely, blush pink insides of a local watermelon radish. She moves on to describe how to clean leeks, extolling the health benefits of savory alliums.
Leeks? You may be asking. At the library?
Until May 2017, the answer is yes, thanks to a $30,000 state grant which provided the funding for an innovative plan of action developed by forward-thinking library staffers. The cooking class taught by Nussinow is only one of a roster of courses offered for free, at branch libraries as part of the Healthy Living at Your Library Series. Along with cooking, from Petaluma to Cloverdale, the branches will offer free classes in Ayurveda principles, healing food basics, senior health literacy, yoga, meditation, cardio kickboxing, and more.
“The purpose is to empower and equip Sonoma County families—particularly low-income households—with the information, resources, and tools necessary for healthy living,” says Jaime Anderson, a division manager with the Sonoma County Library, who also manages the health series.
The initial push for the series came about during a strategic planning process in 2014. Community input revealed a desire for the library to go beyond teaching people how to read and more traditional literacy programs. People wanted help developing health, financial, and digital literacy as well, or what Anderson describes as a “coordinated comprehensive literacy program.”
The feedback from the community overlapped with findings in the Portrait of Sonoma County and the 2014 Community Health Needs Assessment, which revealed deep gaps between populations when it comes to health access and food equity.
“It can be pretty heartbreaking to read the comparisons between one neighborhood and another,” says Anderson. “And the reports showed that the health disparities are largely preventable through education.”
The library team decided to reach out to local experts, agencies, and instructors to gauge interest about offering health literacy classes at the library. The response was positive and enthusiastic. The Sonoma County YMCA signed on to deliver fitness classes and the Northern California Center for Well-Being committed to sending out their “Promotoras de Salud” for bilingual community health education sessions. Other partners included the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, St. Joseph Health, Ceres Community Project, SRJC, and Nussinow. Despite a highly competitive grant process, the Sonoma County Library was one of 30 public libraries awarded federal grant money administered by the California State Library. The grant allows for the free classes to run through May 2017.
The goals are two-fold: To increase class participants’ fruit and vegetable consumption and their commitment to regular exercise.
“With the anxiety that some people are feeling this year about what’s going to happen with the future of health care, I believe the most important thing any of us can do for our health is to do our best to watch our diet, exercise regularly, and be mindful of our lifestyle,” says Anderson. “These are things any of us can do in a very affordable way. The library is trying to help educate people on how easy and fun it can be to cook nutritious meals at home, go out for hikes and walks, things of that nature, so that people feel more empowered to take control of their health.”
If the enthusiasm of the audience at Jill Nussinow’s winter vegetable cooking class is any indication, at least a few people will be heading to the farmers market to pick up radishes, parsnips, and celery root. Touchdown!