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With the vision, invitation and facilitation of the Brisben Center Executive Director, David Cooper, the Understanding Cooking and Nutrition Club (UCAN Club) was formed in August 2018. In November 2018, the Club’s planning committee, made up of Christian Zammas, Dr. Yum Project board member Laura Visioni and Virginia Cooperative Extension agent April Payne—presented their idea for a series of evening workshops for families residing at the center.

The goal is to teach the families cooking and meal-planning skills they can take with them when they leave the shelter.

Based on the assumption that families might not have access to a full kitchen once they leave, the classes will demonstrate how healthy meals can be made on a hot plate, in a crock pot or other implements that simply plug into a wall.

 “We want them to leave with skills they can use anywhere they go,” Zammas said.

The classes—which would be taught by volunteers “with a combination of emotion and heart and skill,” Visioni said—will focus on basic formulas for healthy meals, rather than specific recipes.

“We don’t want people to be relying on recipes,” Visioni said. “So we’d teach them how to make a generic soup or a generic smoothie or yum bowl to which they can add whatever ingredients they have on hand.”

Some of the class ideas the committee proposed include blender cooking (smoothies and purees), crock pot cooking, “no cook” cooking (salads and healthy no-bake treats) and microwave cooking.

Each topic would be taught along with a course on nutrition basics and food safety.

To begin, the classes will be limited to families instead of single residents of the shelter.

“We want to get to and include the children, so there’s that buy-in and they get excited about cooking food at home,” Zammas said.

The committee members surveyed residents of the shelter at dinner one night to assess their level of interest in different cooking and nutrition-related topics. They found that people most wanted to know how to use the fresh and sometimes unfamiliar ingredients they might get for free from local farms, how to store and use leftovers, how to prepare healthy meals with the tools and equipment they have and where their food comes from.

“We feel there is a desire to participate,” Zammas said. “We want people to want this. And we think we have that feeling.”

Organized and formed by the Brisben Center, other partners in the UCAN Club include The Table at St. George’s Episcopal Church, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, and registered dietitian Leah Courtnage. The coalition hopes to start offering the nutrition classes at the Brisben Center in March 2019.


The UCAN Club volunteers help low-income families learn how to select, prepare, consume, and store healthy food on a tight budget. Children and adult participants will learn to cook with crock pots, microwaves, blenders and other appliances. We need volunteers to help homeless families learn these skills, fundraise/market, and serve on a UCANN Club committee. Time commitments vary. Click here to learn more about the UCAN Club.


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