I can write this with almost absolute certainty – there isn’t a parent who doesn’t want someone else to cook dinner once in a while.
I’m guessing that someone is usually a partner, friend, family member, restaurant or maybe a microwave oven. But what if that someone was a group of neighbors, cooking and dining together in support of healthy eating and community building through food, and the dinner itself was yummy and globally environmentally conscious?
Dream come true? Just might be.
My son and I have been going to a local community dinner (established 2008) at the Rainier Community Center since he was barely 3 years old. Volunteers prepare the dinner the third Friday of every month during the school year to feed between 60 and 80 people. It is completely neighborhood driven: community led/funded and community serving.
It is currently headed by Kaitlin O’Connell and Robert Hartner, who organize a solid base of about 15 returning and hard-working volunteers, including all-star youth from the day care program who like to help roll out cookie dough, chop vegetables and set up the dining area.
Gyoza, curry and pie
I have never ceased to be amazed by the impressive and delicious array of dinner themes served at the monthly dinners, from gyoza and dumplings in November, to Indian curry in December, to handmade pasta in January. Food is laid out buffet style and diners then serve themselves.
In honor of Black History Month, February’s menu was soul food: jazzy chicken gumbo, home-style corn bread, dirty rice, macaroni and cheese, mixed green salad with homemade ranch dressing and sweet potato pie.
There’s always something for almost everyone, including for vegetarians and little, picky eaters. I admit, despite my best efforts, my son ends up sticking with starches and sweets. Case in point, after last month’s meal I asked him what his favorite thing about dinner was that night. He replied, “Ummm. The pie.” "What did you like about it the pie?" I asked? “Ummm. The sweetness!”
Meals are planned by a committee (anyone can volunteer) with additional input from participant/community surveys.
Ingredients are local, seasonal, organic and free range whenever possible.
Purchasing is greatly assisted by its affiliation with Community Kitchens Northwest, a program of Seattle Tilth that presently staffs a few other kitchens/dinners and acts as a network of resources and support for community kitchens all across the city. Community Kitchens facilitates bulk buys of ingredients such as grains, dried beans and gluten-free pasta at a reduced rate and offers wholesale greens from Seattle Tilth Farms from June through October.
Waiting for the kitchen to open can be tricky for a hungry child but luckily, Rainier Community Center has a lobby with not only ping pong, but also foosball and pool tables. If those are full, the center also has two gyms where some kind of big-kid activity is usually happening (e.g. basketball game or martial arts).
Once the doors open, attendees sign in and offer their donation. Rainier Community Center asks for a minimum $1 donation but we always try to give more if we can because the kitchen/dinner uses the night’s donations to fund the next month’s meal.
Contributing to these programs not only supports community building but sustainable and equitable food systems. This time we gave $5 and I always make sure to have my son put the money in the box so he can participate as much as possible.
It was a full house in February. There were diners all across the age spectrum from parents with babies and toddlers, to tweens, teens, adults and seniors.
After dinner we helped clean up. My kiddo insisted on helping a stranger fold/roll away table and then on putting away a specific chair (which he just mostly pushed around). Either way.
If these are some of his earliest self-initiated moments, if we help make the world a better place and if there is one less meal I have to cook -- well, need I say more?
If you go ...
When: The Rainier Community Kitchens dinner is held the third Friday of the month during the school year. Show up between 3:30 and 4 to to help cook, and from 6-7 p.m. to eat, including cleanup. The next dinner is Friday, March 21, and the menu is pizza, plus a raw vegan banana pudding cook-off!
Where: Rainier Community Center, 4600 38th Ave S, Seattle WA, 206-386-1919
Cost: Minimum $1 donation (but please donate more if you can)
Ages: Great for all ages!
Tips: Parking is easy but get there on time. Food does run out. Bring cash for donations. It’s always more fun with friends so invite your buddies! Waiting at the buffet is tricky if you have small children. Come armed with another adult, games/books to entertain preschoolers, or carriers to wear babies. If you have a more restricted diet, you may not automatically be accommodated. Contact the kitchen in advance and they will be more than happy to include your preferences.
Other Community Kitchens in Seattle: According to Community Kitchens Northwest Program Manager, Leika Suzumura, there are currently eight Community Kitchens programs and six after-school cooking clubs in its coalition. The program is working on a regional map showing kitchens/clubs across the city soon to be up on their website. Check back for updates.
In the meantime you can find a semi-comprehensive list at Seattle Tilth’s blog.
Special note: The Rainier Beach Community Center & Pool now offers one of the newest Community Kitchens/dinners in Seattle. It occurs the third Sunday of every month at a time specifically coinciding with open swim: Food prep is from 2-4 p.m., dinner/cleanup from 4-5 p.m.
More resources for healthy, community-oriented cooking
Photo credits: Sharon Chang