The Martha O'Bryan Center Makes Healthy Food Available to All By Maggie Summers

It's 8 a.m. on a Monday as Meg Giuffrida furiously stuffs liners into a muffin pan. She quickly drops blueberry cornbread mix into the pastel circles, one after another, until the pan is full. The oven door opens, the pan enters, the door slams shut. Meg has been cooking since 6 a.m., and the kitchen is buzzing with movement. At the moment, there's probably more energy in this unassuming kitchen than anywhere else in Nashville.

Meg is a volunteer at the Martha O'Bryan Center in East Nashville. The kitchen at the center produces around 700 healthy meals a day, a number that seems incredibly daunting given the small staff. Today, Meg has three people working with her instead of the usual four. Six people would be ideal, she says wistfully, and more volunteers are always welcome.

The Martha O'Bryan Center serves those who live in and around Cayce Place, Nashville's oldest and poorest public housing development located at 7th and Shelby, and it's primarily youth who are served the 700 meals. A hundred children at the Early Learning Center located on campus are served breakfast, lunch, and a snack every day; more than 200 kids at the recently opened East End Preparatory school in Inglewood are served lunch; and around 90 elderly people are served a hot meal once a day through a Meals on Wheels program. On top of that, the kitchen typically serves a catered meal once a day. The kitchen staff also oversees the center's food bank, which is the second busiest emergency food bank in Davidson County, serving about 1,200 clients a month. The Center is always looking for more donations from local farmers.

"Every single day in the kitchen is crazy," Meg says with a smile. She's long been accustomed to the hustle and bustle of a kitchen, having been the executive chef at her own restaurant, Red Wagon Café in East Nashville. After it closed, she ran a small sewing business until about three years ago, when Martha O'Bryan contacted her with the opportunity to join the kitchen. The goal was to reform the food the children of the community were eating in hopes that it would trickle down into healthier family choices. Meg loved the idea and jumped at the project.

Her first adjustment was to remove the fryer from the kitchen, which "was not a very popular choice, even among Martha O'Bryan staff members," she admits-although "now nobody notices." Every meal is cooked from scratch, and though it's made in mass quantities and mostly "kid food," it's healthy. A typical meal would be something like chicken stir-fry with broccoli, peppers, squash, and brown rice, or turkey meatloaf with mashed potatoes.

Meg has found that the key to getting children to eat healthy food is to expose them to it repeatedly. As 39 percent of children are either obese or overweight, and 35.7 percent of adults are obese, it is not an exaggeration to say that obesity is an epidemic in this country. The horror of childhood obesity, in particular, lies in the lasting health effects it will have on the child for the rest of his or her lifetime. Exposure to healthy food must happen at an early age, which is precisely what Meg and the kitchen staff at Martha O'Bryan accomplish with the center's healthy yet kid-friendly fare.

"Essentially, I want to affect the parents because then the children will have healthy food all the time and not just when they're with me," Meg says. Such a result is difficult for the families the Martha O'Bryan Center serves, however, because Cayce Place is located in a food desert. For those who don't have their own transportation, the only place to buy groceries is the gas station.

They also could take the bus, but as Meg thoughtfully points out, "I have one child and a husband, and I come home with ten bags of groceries for the week. Think about having to walk home with that, or even get on the bus with that. It's daunting."

Many steps are being taken by the Martha O'Bryan Center to bring Cayce Place out of the food desert. Last year, it partnered with Trinity Presbyterian Church to have volunteers visit the farmers' market every day to collect produce that would otherwise be thrown away. Last year, they got about 18,000 pounds of vegetables and Meg says it'll be twice that this year. She divides the produce between the children, the food bank, and anyone from the community who wants to come by and grab some. "That's really having an effect on the neighborhood," Meg says.

Meg hopes to do more community outreach education in the future when the kitchen has more support staff, but for now, simply having access to healthy food is making an enormous difference in the lives of those served.

Maggie Summers is a literary, travel, and news junkie. She graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism and works as a content writer at Ethos3, a presentation design agency located in Nashville.