On a recent hot summer afternoon, as people walk through the Charles Drew Health Center in north Omaha, the smell of fresh lettuce, tomatoes and onions fills the air. Chef Brian Johnson turned a small air-conditioned room into a kitchen and cooking class. On the menu is a fresh garden salad with homemade dressing, along with a vegetable cheese pasta dish.
"It will be green beans, peas and carrots in this recipe," he said, demonstrating to the crowd. "Now you can blanch these off blanching is where you put them (vegetables) in boiling water for a couple of minutes, so you can get that vibrancy of the vegetables out. Or, what I'm going to do is cook them a tiny bit longer and they'll finish cooking in the pan. But they're going to have a nice little snap to them."
This weekly healthy cooking program is hosted by the nonprofit group No More Empty Pots.
"We've been called pots, no pots, empty pots, all kinds of pots," said Nancy Williams with a laugh. Williams is one of the organizers of the grassroots group. She said they've been working with the community since 2009, educating people about food deserts: areas where people don't have ready access to healthy foods, both in urban and rural towns.
(Check out earlier reporting on food deserts from NET News' Clay Masters here)
"Food is one of those basic things that can determine how well you live, whether you have income or not," she said. "It does affect your health, well-being, mental capacity, and (it) affects your ability to do what you need to do on a daily basis.
"So, yes food is important."
In rural areas, people often have to travel 15 to 20 miles to get a full-service grocery store that sells fresh food. In impoverished urban areas like north Omaha, many liquor and convenience stores crowd the corner streets, but often leads to a shortage of full grocery stores.
Susan Whitfield is the project manager for the No More Empty Pots. She said the organization urban food deserts, while more about poverty than race, contribute to health disparities among minorities. (North Omaha is predominantly African-American.)
"What we do know about the African American community," she said, is that "a lot of the issues around health disparities are preventable and manageable. Diabetes, hypertension, that's manageable. If they get the right information and start practicing better health habits, it can change."
No More Empty Pots follows a model that gets the food directly from the farmer to the consumer. Each week, the group sells what they call "community market baskets" in two locations: the Charles Drew Center in Omah and the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Center in Lincoln. The bags are loaded with bread, fruits and vegetables, and are affordably priced. People can also pay with food stamp cards.
"They get fresh food that's delivered on Tuesday to the aggregator Tomato-Tomato, and it gets to them on Wednesday," Williams said. "It's very fresh; some of them still have the roots and soil from when it was pulled."
During this year's spring legislative session in the Nebraska Unicameral, Sen. Brenda Council introduced a bill to try to prevent food deserts, through state-funded initiatives that would expand farmers markets, community gardening projects and mobile markets, and also offer incentives for stores that stock more healthy foods. Council's bill passed in the Unicameral, but was vetoed by Governor Dave Heineman, who said he supported the goal but that the bill duplicated other efforts.
But Williams said policies make all the difference.
"You have to have the policy to help inform that process," she said. "To make sure that whatever gains we have, that you keep them, and that they work long-term. Not just for the moment and not just for a few people."
Back at the cooking demonstration, Johnson sprinkles dressing on a large bowl of salad. Brenda McGruder, along with a handful of other people, sampled his cooking. McGruder lives in North Omaha, and said she's diabetic. A vegetarian, she also said cooking healthy foods is important to her.
"You start thinking about the quality of life, how long you're going to live, if you're going to be able to take care of yourself," she said. "If you'll be able to exercise, to get and do the things that you need to do in order to stay healthy. I always tell my nieces and nephews, If you're going to start, start now, (because) good habits stay with you, and if you create bad habits, they are very, very hard to break."