Cooking with Clare Swan

Clare Swan Early Learning Center used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to help families build new, nutritious skills

CSELC staff distribute a month’s supply of food for families in May 2020.

When families began sheltering-in-place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many were faced with a dilemma:  How to feed an entire family three meals a day, every day, without multiple trips to the grocery store or the support of the occasional restaurant meal?

Clare Swan Early Learning Center (CSELC) came up with an answer for enrolled families:  Last summer, through their first food drive, they provided 48 families with a month’s worth of groceries to learn how to “cook for a month.” And then they created a cooking show.

Using one pound portion of ground beef base, stir in taco seasoning and water. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat, place food in a Ziploc bag, seal, and label with date, instructs a Youtube video created by Kitchen Supervisor Celena Akens and La’a Kenu Project Manager Ashley Bowen. The video, posted on the CSELC Facebook Group for enrolled families, shows viewers how to prepare a month’s worth of food, including taco meat, “dirty” rice, and spaghetti sauce, that can be frozen, then thawed.

“Our goal was to help families think outside the box,” said Devin Cress, former CSELC Family Services manager. “Instead of cooking from scratch every time, it’s much easier to cook meat for a month, then warm it up when you need it.”

The idea of creating cooking videos for families had been percolating for awhile with CSELC staff. They envisioned providing the meat to families, who would buy other necessary ingredients, then assemble meals with guidance from the videos.

“We wanted to demonstrate that you can take the 75 dollars a person might spend on fast food each week and buy ingredients that could be used to make a week’s work of healthy meals,” Devin elaborated. “To do that, we wanted to create a community of support, where parents would find tools and recipes and guidance on how, exactly, to make those meals.”

But when COVID-19 required many parents to be at home fulltime, sheltering-in-place became an opportunity for CSELC staff to show parents that cooking nutritious meals could be a family activity that would teach their children new skills.

“Our goal was to help families think outside the box. Instead of cooking from scratch every time, it’s much easier to cook meat for a month, then warm it up when you need it.”
– Devin Cress, former CSELC Family Services manager

Led by Celena and Ashley, CSELC welcomed 48 families on Tuesday, May 12, and Monday, May 18. Taking social distancing precautions and wearing masks, staff provided a month’s worth of meal ingredients, including oats, dry pasta, meat, canned goods, fruits, vegetables, and cereal.

“Thank you guys so much. This is a blessing!” one parent messaged CSELC staff through Facebook. “We did really need the food. I’m sure Johnny and I will have a blast cooking dinner together…I’m sure this will become a habit of us cooking together more, since he’s getting older now.”

Former CSELC mom Robyn Jack picks up supplies at the May 2020 food drive for families.

“Clare Swan [Early Learning Center] has made so many families, including ours, feel so VERY cared for during some difficult times,” commented CSELC parent Cheryl Arnariak.

CSELC Director Connie Wirz sees the food drive and other support provided to families as an extension of Alaska Native values.

“As our parents face challenges related to employment and sheltering in place, our traditional values help our participants to be prepared,” she said. “Values such as ‘share what you have’ and ‘giving makes you richer’ lead us to find ways we can support our young families beyond what their children learn in the classroom.”

“This was my favorite event that we have ever done,” Devin shared. “Families went above and beyond to express their gratitude, and it was so uplifting to our staff. It’s incredibly heartwarming.”

CSELC staff continually creates supplemental resources to help families stay healthy. In addition to cooking videos, the CSELC Facebook Group features daily posts, from staff and families, with toddler-friendly learning activities, tips on helping children cope with stress or anxiety, “on the spot” learning games, language lessons, and videos from CSELC’s Youtube playlist. Staff have also created learning activity boxes for families that include developmentally appropriate supplies and activities.

Learn more about Clare Swan Early Learning Center.