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Nutritionist's online cooking classes resonate with community picking up free food

Wendy Wesley started showing Floridians how to make healthy meals online at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Wendy Wesley flashed a smile as she punched the record button on her iPhone. In front of her sat a bag of quinoa, a can of black beans, a few mushrooms and a large onion. 

Her newest cooking demonstration was set to begin.

“This is called cooking from your pantry,” the registered dietician and nutritionist said confidently. “This is the first time I’m putting cabbage in my black bean burgers.”

Wesley served as the Manager for Health Education for the St. Pete Free Clinic in downtown St. Petersburg since December. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, she’s been offering recorded cooking demonstrations for anyone who comes to the clinic to pick up donated foods.

“This is like my dream job,” she said.

The St. Pete Free Clinic has offered drive-up food services for over a month. Anyone in need of fresh foods can come to the parking lot where volunteers will load up the car with whatever donated items are available. Wesley says the outreach has seen a 300-percent spike in need since the start of the pandemic. 

The food has been provided through donors and some is purchased by the clinic. It’s a helpful service but often the people receiving the food don’t know how to cook the items.

“We were giving away whole chickens and a couple of people said, ‘Don’t give me [that]. I don’t know what to do with it,’ and I realize that I had to teach people how to roast a chicken. That’s how it started.”

Credit: Provided
Yeah, that's looking pretty good right about now.

That’s why Wesley is so excited about teaching cooking classes online to people receiving food from the free pantry.

“We have been able to meet the need,” she said. “We have generous sponsors and we have purchased some food, too. I find out what we’re giving out in the pantry and then I come up with recipes.”

People have reached out on social media with meal requests. One person asked for a fried rice recipe and Wesley got right on it.  

“We have eggs. We tend to have potatoes and we always offer some kind of meat,” she explained. “So, this week we’re giving away chicken thighs and chicken thighs are something I’ve been cooking with for a long time. I like chicken thighs. I like the dark meat and so I might grab some chicken thighs and make some chicken cacciatore.”

Wesley’s teaching kitchen, which is on the St. Pete Free Clinic campus downtown, may reopen soon. Live demonstrations were conducted pre-COVID a few times per month. Those classes have been replaced with online ones for now. 

So far, Wesley has demonstrated how to make about two dozen dishes.  

“I was getting momentum when everything shut down,” she said.

Now, she’s planning to sharpen her skills with video demonstrations and incorporate that into live cooking classes once the pandemic restrictions loosen and people are allowed back into her kitchen. Each online demonstration lasts fewer than ten minutes.

“Sharp knives save lives in the kitchen,” she said before slicing an onion for her black bean burgers. She explained the process of a perfect chiffonade cut and formed her burger patty. “Look at that beautiful color.”

Her goals are to help people get cooking at home instead of relying on restaurants. The cooking classes have been well-received. Comments left on Facebook and YouTube prove it.

“Oh my, this looks amazing! I love using Rosemary,” commented one viewer who watched Wesley’s whole chicken cooking demo.

Wendy started cooking when she was 10. One of the first things she ever cooked was a whole chicken. She “shops” for ingredients at the pantry like everyone else. She won’t do a video for a recipe that has more than eight ingredients. She tries to use one pot. She loves to have someone say, ‘That’s it?’ and have fun cooking. 

And, to not be discouraged if your food isn’t ready for any Food Network competitions.

“It’s not going to look like a celebrity chef made it. It’s your cooking. It came from your kitchen and that’s good enough,” she said. “Your cooking is good enough so don’t feel ashamed of your cooking. Don’t feel self-conscious about your cooking. Just get in there.”

To watch some of Wendy’s cooking classes, visit the St. Pete Free Clinic on Facebook or Wendy’s nutrition website.

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