Adults with disabilities learn nutrition, grow gardening and cooking skills

Adults with disabilities learn nutrition, grow gardening and cooking skills

CalFresh Healthy Living, UC and UC Master Gardeners partner with nonprofit MORE in El Dorado County

A nonprofit serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in El Dorado County, MORE has found kindred spirits in helping their clients live fuller and healthier lives – the staff and volunteers of University of California Master Gardeners and CalFresh Healthy Living, UC.

Since 2018, these programs – both affiliated with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources – have helped enrich the lives of about 60 clients at MORE, which offers services ranging from independent-living skills development to job training and placement.

“This is exactly the kind of partnership that we like to make with the community,” said MORE CEO Susie Davies, who has been with the Placerville-based organization for 40 years. “This has just been incredible; our people have learned above and beyond what we could even have imagined in nutrition and gardening.”

The three-party partnership, which Davies calls a “win-win-win,” offers a course that combines gardening and nutrition lessons, as well as a new cooking and food safety-focused class developed by educator Cailin McLaughlin in collaboration with MORE staff.

During one session, MORE clients enjoyed preparing a “plant part salad,” following a botanical lesson on the edible components of plants – fruits, roots, leaves, seeds and stems. “It was fun to cut the celery and broccoli,” said Jared (first names are used to protect privacy). “I like pouring the sauce in.”

“I liked everything about creating the salad,” said Deanne, another participant.

“MORE is the dream site, the best you could ever hope to go to, with the programming and the clients always being lovely and really just being down for anything,” said McLaughlin, a CalFresh Healthy Living nutrition educator at the Central Sierra UC Cooperative Extension office. “It's just a really cool place to be.”

CalFresh Healthy Living, UC is one of the organizations in California that teaches nutrition to people eligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). UC Davis administers the SNAP-Ed grant and UC Cooperative Extension educators deliver the lessons throughout the state.

‘Part of our MORE family'

Through the gardening and nutrition program, clients learn and apply their skills in the garden and greenhouse at the MORE facility and in the nearby Sherwood Demonstration Garden maintained by UC Master Gardeners of El Dorado County.

“The participants get a chance to harvest, plant, pull weeds and learn about integrated pest management, both in the vegetable garden and in the orchard,” said Tracy Celio, the local UC Master Gardeners program manager who worked with former CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE educator Miranda Capriotti to develop the program.

“It's a very good program,” said Tony, a MORE client. “I can learn things.”

While experiencing the pride in bringing fresh produce to their home or to the MORE kitchen for use in the meal service, the clients are also taking away nutritious and healthy recipes. Jordan Postlewait, director of community access programs at MORE, said participants now know how to use ingredients from the garden to create dishes such as tomato salsa and fruit salad.

“They've taken the recipes that Cailin has given them and they go home and serve their whole group home what we had made for a snack,” Postlewait said. “They are paying attention to what they're eating.”

As a result of this awareness and knowledge of nutritious foods, Davies said that MORE clients are healthier, more energized and alert, and ready to learn. She is quick to credit the expertise and enthusiasm of McLaughlin, CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE program coordinator Mariana Garcia, and the UC Master Gardeners staff and volunteers.

“They have the same dedication and commitment to excellence in their preparation for every session as our staff,” Davies said. “They just became part of our MORE family.”

“I like seeing Cailin and Tracy and all the staff who are my friends,” said Kenion, a MORE client.

Cooking lessons create possibilities for kitchen time, jobs

In April, two groups, each composed of six people, began participating in a new five-session course combining nutrition, food safety and basic cooking techniques. Each two-hour session included a nutrition lesson, a physical activity and time in MORE's commercial kitchen.

“It was fun getting in the kitchen and learning how to prepare my own meals,” Jared said. “I learned how to safely use a small skillet.”

Another participant, Kyle, said he uses the recipes to cook for his roommates. “I liked learning new cooking skills and recipes,” he said.

McLaughlin adapted a youth-oriented healthy eating curriculum, approved for use by CalFresh Healthy Living, UC, and tailored it for adults at MORE.

“The whole goal is to get them closer to an independent living circumstance, where either they can live in a group facility or have their own apartment – and knowing how to cook and identify healthy recipes is a huge component of that,” McLaughlin explained.

The guided kitchen experiences – and equipment like plastic safety knives – not only benefit the participants but also give their family members reassurance and confidence to include them in meal preparation.

“We've actually been asked by staff at MORE, and also by clients' parents, where we got the knives, because they would like to have their family member in the kitchen with them, if they can do it safely,” McLaughlin said. “They didn't know things like safety knives existed; they didn't know you could adapt a silicone food guard to keep them from burning themselves on a burner.”

In addition to enhancing the clients' family time, the cooking lessons could also set them up for future employment. Davies said she is in talks with a local chef about establishing a culinary training for the clients.

“This cooking program could be a preparation program for them to be involved in the culinary training program,” she said. “That's what we're really excited about.”

McLaughlin added that, for future sessions of the cooking and food-safety series, past participants have expressed interest in serving as kitchen aides and mentors.

Partners nurture clients' relationships with nature, community

Empowering clients with new skills and fostering a sense of ownership of the garden are both cornerstones of the partnership programs. Beginning in 2019, participants from MORE each adopted a tree in the Sherwood Demonstration Garden orchard to monitor and nurture.

“Almost every time they come to the garden, we check those fruit trees,” Celio said. “The trees are doing so many things throughout the year, so they're following the cycle: they watch the leaves drop; they watch the fruit come in; they see what a freeze does to their tree; they see what pests do to their tree.”

The participants experience the challenges of gardening – from managing rabbits and squirrels to coping with the loss of a pear tree due to disease – as well as its many joys.

“I liked seeing the butterflies and different plants; the butterflies drink from the bushes,” said Jen, a MORE client. “My favorite thing is the rose garden.”

At the same time, the clients have built strong relationships with the core group of UC Master Gardener volunteers and the dozen or so “vegetable garden crew” volunteers. Celio stressed that the garden programs, which were recently recognized by the statewide UC Master Gardeners program with a Search for Excellence Award, are truly collaborative.

MORE participants often bring their own ideas; one man, for example, became interested in composting and worked with MORE staff to establish a worm bin at the MORE facility garden. 

“Every time I see that client, he will tell me how the worms were doing and he'll tell me how healthy the plants are that are growing next to the worm bin,” Celio said, adding that he also worked at a table during a MORE fair, teaching other clients and their family members about vermiculture.

Advocating for the greater good of the community is central to another CalFresh Healthy Living, UC collaborative project at MORE, in partnership with Stanford University's Our Voice initiative. Using an online tool and app, 12 clients have been taking photos and sharing feedback on their health and wellness experience at MORE, specifically about their walking trail. With that information, they are building a case to make the path safer and more enjoyable.

Responding to their feedback, along with the other partnership programs that are building vital skills and community, demonstrate to MORE's clients that they are appreciated and respected.

“The request from the people that we serve is that they want to be seen, they want to be heard, and they want to be valued by other community members,” Davies said. “And this is really showing them that they are valued and being seen and heard.”