Drug Users Learn
Art of Healthy Cooking

Rebecca Shannonhouse
American News Service

NEW YORK -- They chop eggplant and bell peppers in a cramped corner office near the heart of Times Square. They stir, saut� and simmer bountiful dishes to the rhythm of noisy traffic. Nutrition is the lesson, but this improvised kitchen is no ordinary cooking school. It's the Positive Health Project, where active and former IV drug users learn to prepare simple, healthful meals for a dollar or less a serving.

Known as Planet Hot Plate, the freewheeling, three-hour cooking class is the creation of Diana Hartel, an AIDS researcher and assistant professor of public health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

The recipes are vegetarian -- to cut down on cost and to enhance the nutritional value for students, many of whom have tested positive for HIV. "They're likely to go out and buy burgers a lot," says Hartel. "They eat too much fat and sugar and hardly any veggies."

Adds David Purchase, chair of the North American Syringe Exchange Network in Tacoma, Wash.: "The nutritional lifestyle of a heroin injector is notoriously poor. The classic meal is a Coke and a Snickers bar."

In class, ethnic dishes are popular. Favorites include burritos, caponata and sesame noodles with tofu and vegetables, dishes that will be among 100 recipes in a new Planet Hot Plate Cookbook being self-published to support the project.

Many of the students are homeless or live in single-resident-occupancy apartments, where good eating habits can be difficult to practice. "A lot of people will ignore when they're hungry," says Hartel. "They'll just eat in a habitual way. Eating steadily and healthfully will sustain them for much longer, and if they're well fed and eating regularly they can deal with their drug addiction better."

Some do not have a kitchen to try out the recipes immediately, but Hartel hopes the nutritional information will instill better eating habits anyway. Fresh fruits and vegetables are inexpensive and readily available at outdoor markets and grocery stores, she reminds her students.

Hartel begins each class with a few words about nutrition -- diet and stress was a recent topic -- then welcomes impromptu comments on food. When a student requested cheesecake as a class assignment, Hartel politely declined.

"I cook everything on a hot plate," says Hartel, whose classes evolved from Community Works, a health and community development outreach project she began, which conducts other activities such as gardening and sewing groups. "It's kind of like a show. I bring the stuff in a large plastic container, unpack everything, and within about 10 minutes, we have a kitchen."

Most recipes -- pasta with beans and tomato sauce, for example, or black-eyed peas with rice and collard greens -- can be prepared for no more than $1 a serving. A few dishes, including North African vegetable stew and fruit cobbler, cost about $3.

At each class, participants first wash their hands and then pull on disposable rubber gloves before touching the food. No one who is coughing is allowed to help with the cooking. Many of the students are HIV-positive or cope with other chronic health concerns, such as diabetes.

Once the meals are prepared, the students smooth out a tablecloth and share the food with staff and visitors. "They always come back for seconds," notes one student.

About 300 students have attended Hartel's cooking classes, which are also conducted at places including a women's HIV study group in the Bronx, a drug-prevention program in Harlem, and domestic violence shelters. Class sizes vary from a half-dozen students to more than 20. Many participants return week after week, while others attend less regularly. "The minute you put heavy structure in the class you're going to lose these folks," Hartel explains.

Jason Farrell, executive director of Positive Health Project, says the cooking class is the only one he knows of that is conducted at a syringe-exchange program, in which drug users turn in dirty needles for clean ones.

"(The class) is a beautiful thing," Farrell explains. "This provides an atmosphere of love and support. Food is love. People come to eat, socialize and learn. There's no place else where a group of disenfranchised people can come and be treated like this."

North African Vegetable Stew, a la Planet Hot Plate

4 tablespoons olive oil
3 large onions, halved and thinly sliced lengthwise
6 garlic cloves, very finely minced
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
    (use coriander or cumin if you don't have both)
1 tablespoon grated ginger or 2 teaspoons ground dry ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked or 1 16-ounce can of beans
    (white kidney, fava, or whatever you have on hand)
1 butternut squash
4 potatoes
4 carrots
1/2 cup raisins

Heat oil and saut� onions. Add garlic, coriander, cumin, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and cloves, salt and pepper to taste. The aroma will be wonderful! Add the beans, butternut squash, potatoes, carrots and raisins with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are done but not mushy. Serve with plain yogurt, your favorite chili sauce, some fresh chopped cilantro. It is great with couscous (North African and Middle Eastern pasta), rice or any other grain you wish. The beans and the grains together give you complete protein.

-- From "Planet Hot Plate Cookbook," $25. To order, write to Diana Hartel, Montefiore Medical Center, 75 E. 208th St., Bronx, N.Y., 10467. Telephone: 914-855-0118.
Posted June 16, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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