Cooking class facilitators prepping veggies

Cooking class facilitators prepping veggies in 2018

Community Engagement: Our Not-So-Secret Ingredient to Program Success

"I love sharing new experiences with participants, whether it be introducing them to a new vegetable, a new cooking technique, or a new basic skill. The joy in learning a new process lights up the participants' face and warms my heart." -Cristina, Happy Kitchen Facilitator

These words above are an example of one of the longest-running pieces of SFC’s work: community engagement.

Many of our programs at SFC are designed around a promotora model. Promotoras, or community health workers, are frontline public health workers who are trusted members of the community in which they work.

While SFC doesn’t require a specific community health worker certification for promotoras, we have learned valuable lessons from this concept. The most important one is the value of asking community leaders to work alongside us in improving access to nutritious, affordable, local food.

Recognizing the knowledge, skills, and insight of community leaders is a key piece of SFC’s equity work. We do this not only because we believe it’s important, but also because it makes our work better.

Promotora teaching cooking class

Claudia, class facilitator teaching a cooking class in 2018

How Community Engagement Works at SFC

Teaching Classes:

Our The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre® program has been using a promotora model since the late 1990s. Chefs originally taught these cooking and nutrition classes, but it can be intimidating to learn from someone with so much formal training. We invited past class participants to become class facilitators, which creates a supportive peer to peer learning environment.

We have found participants are much more comfortable asking questions when facilitators share why they choose to cook at home or use local ingredients. It can also be more relatable and inspiring to learn from someone who is making those choices on top of other job, family, and personal commitments.

Promoting Food Access:

More recently we used this same model to train promotoras to lead recipe samplings at Fresh for Less Mobile Markets (mini farmers’ markets spread throughout the community that offer fresh, reduced price produce).

Recipe samplings aren’t currently possible because of COVID-19, so these promotoras have pivoted to managing a bilingual help desk, assisting customers with their Fresh for Less home delivery orders or WIC produce box orders.

As our programs pivoted to run safely during the pandemic, one of our biggest concerns has been access to technology. Online ordering is more efficient, so we included a call-in option to help make online ordering more accessible for participants. Plus, the promotoras who staff the help desk have also placed their own orders and experienced the delivery process, so they can explain the process from first-hand experience.

Spreading the Word:

We also apply this strategy to our social media work. When we launched our Spanish language Facebook group to create conversations around local food, we invited 10 community leaders to join the group, contribute content, and invite others to become members. These ambassadors have kept the group alive with more than 1000 members to date. We are sharing this social media model with other organizations, such as GAVA and Houston’s Urban Harvest, to help them increase community engagement in their programs as well.

Volunteers at Farm Stand

Staff and volunteers at a Mobile Market in 2019

Our Advice for How You Can Increase Community Engagement at Your Organization

Recruit strategically:

Try to engage community members that will connect with their audience. If you’re promoting a program geared towards parents, try to recruit other parents! Don’t put out a huge request for applications and see who turns up. Be strategic with who you invite. And once you’ve identified a few people, ask them who they would recommend.

Provide regular opportunities to engage:

This might mean keeping a small list so t everyone can participate regularly. It’s better to have 15 dedicated leaders than 150 who are too busy to take any shifts. If you end up with a lot of people but don’t have enough shifts for them, they’ll find other ways to fill their time.

Offer training:

Our community engagement is built on the idea that community leaders bring knowledge, skills, and insight that are critical to the success of a project. But if you’re inviting community leaders to represent your organization, you’ll want to ensure they can do so comfortably and accurately.

Collect feedback:

Don’t invest the time to strategically recruit and carefully train a network of community leaders and then hand them pre-designed flyers, scripts, recipes, curricula, or outreach plans. Get their opinions and incorporate their feedback! Being responsive to feedback also builds trust with community leaders and encourages them to stay engaged and keep improving on the program.

Group of volunteers seated

Promotora group photo 2018

What Our Promotora Team Has to Say About Their Work

As important as this model is for SFC’s success, it’s also important to hear directly from the community leaders. We sat down with a few leaders who support SFC to learn more about why they are invested in this work:

What impact do you see from your work with SFC?

“The thing that I like about participating in the Spanish Facebook group is that the information is so good. You can find recipes and tips from other members…it is a good platform on social media for Latina women.” - Daniela, Come Fresco y Sano ATX social media ambassador.

“I have seen the excitement in participants when they talk about the recipes they tried with their bag of groceries and know that at least one person or more was impacted…that is very fulfilling for me.” - Barbara, Happy Kitchen Facilitator

“The main take away from the Happy Kitchen classes is that our recipes can be prepared with just a minimum amount of tools and supplies. Unlike chefs who cook in a professional kitchen with all the ingredients and supplies available (as well as dishwashers), we travel to different locations using minimal tools and offer recipes that you can reproduce at home.” - Cristina, Happy Kitchen Facilitator

What was a time when you felt like you were making a difference?

“On one occasion at the farmers' market, a little girl was so excited about the produce. As soon as her Mom received the WIC produce box the girl began to ask her mother for the name of each vegetable, and to smell and see colors and shapes. That moment of sharing touched my soul.” - Yolanda, SFC Farmers’ Market Associate

What advice would you give to a new promotora?

“An important part of the work is a genuine interest in food systems! Whether they like to cook, or grow they own food, or just keep informed about food justice. This will help them to have good communication with clients. And that is something that Double Up Food Bucks customers value very much, that we are sharing enthusiasm.” - Yolanda, SFC Farmers’ Market Associate

Women holding fruit and plants

Cooking class facilitators at Appreciation Event in 2014

The promotora model of community engagement has many benefits. It honors the wisdom of community leaders, helps ensure programs stay nimble and adapt to community needs, and creates more trusting relationships with program participants.

Many thanks to all the community leaders who support our programs as facilitators, promotoras, associates, ambassadors, volunteers, and more.