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Cooking Matters Michigan

Empowering families with the skills, confidence and knowledge to prepare healthy and affordable meals

Filtering by Tag: AmeriCorps

Volunteer spotlight: Alex Zurkiwskyj

dorothy hernandez

Working as an office manager in a real estate office made Alex Zurkiwskyj realize she was just working a job and it wasn't a career. So Alex, who holds a bachelor's degree in communications, decided to study nutrition, enrolling at Oakland Community College in 2009 and starting full time at Madonna University.

The Ferndale resident says she has faced lifelong issues with weight and during her mid-20s, she started making some healthier changes on her own. After a while she decided to take the plunge and study dietetics on an academic level.

After graduating from Madonna, her plans include an internship so she can get credentialed as a registered dietitian. She wants to focus on outreach and preventive health and is interested in women’s health. She’d also like to teach at a university and pursue an advanced degree in human nutrition or public health.

She is currently involved in the Michigan Service Scholars AmeriCorps program in which she is completing 300 hours of community service in a year in addition to her coursework at Madonna University, where she is also president of Nutrition Network. She has done most of her service hours at Gleaners, not only doing Cooking Matters classes (she has done four series and has signed on to do a fifth) but also assisting with Summer Food Service and Kids Helping Kids.

Not surprisingly, food plays a central role in Alex's interests. She dreams of being a farmer (before class one day, she was reading "A Dirty Life," a memoir of a writer who leaves behind NYC for a life on the farm with her husband). She also loves experimenting with "old school" ways of preserving and cooking, from canning to making everything from scratch. One day as she sat down to her home-cooked meal, she realized everything was homemade, from the hummus to the pita to the falafel.

Alex shared her recipe for falafel with us. Thanks, Alex for everything!

Falafel 1 (15 oz) can chickpeas, drained 1 onion ½ c. fresh parsley ½ c. fresh cilantro 2 cloves garlic 1 egg + 1 egg white (or 1 flax egg sub.*) 2 tsp cumin 1 tsp coriander 1 tsp salt 1 dash pepper 1 pinch cayenne 2 tsp lemon juice 1 tsp baking powder 1 T olive oil ¾ c. whole wheat bread crumbs 1 c. panko bread crumbs

In food processor puree onion, garlic, parsley, cilantro

Add chick peas, pulse until combined.

In small bowl combine egg*, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, cayenne, lemon juice and baking powder.

Add egg mixture & olive oil to chickpeas, stir to combine.

Slowly add bread crumbs.

Form into balls, flatten into patties. They will be wet and have a tendency to fall apart so handle them carefully.

Lightly coat with panko bread crumbs. Spray both sides with cooking spray. Place on parchment paper-lined cookie sheet.

Bake at 425° for 25-30 minutes, flipping once.

*flax egg substitute: 1 T ground flax seed + 3 T water. Stir and let sit for 20 minutes.

Understanding Our Participants



A few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported on a study from Washington University in St. Louis that found that nearly half of all U.S. children (and 90% of African-American children) will be on food stamps “at some point during childhood, and fallout from the current recession could push those numbers even higher.”

Food stamps are a Department of Agriculture program for low-income individuals and families, covering most foods although not prepared hot foods or alcohol. For a family of four to be eligible, their annual take-home pay can't exceed about $22,000.

According to a USDA report released last month, 28.4 million Americans received food stamps in an average month in 2008, and about half were younger than age 18. The average monthly benefit per household totaled $222.


The lead author of the study, Mark Rank, said that his work suggests that most people know a family that has received or will receive food stamps.

In Detroit, these numbers are not surprising. With a high participation rate in federal assistance programs amongst those who are eligible (92% for food stamps, in fact), it’s likely that you would know more than a few families who have received food stamps.

For Operation Frontline, close to 80% of our participants are eligible for federal assistance programs. This means that every one of them is on a tight budget and is looking for tips on how to feed a family inexpensively.

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My Experience as an AmeriCorps

Before working with Operation Frontline, I (Diana) had never been on any kind of federal assistance. As a kid, my family struggled through tough times – my mom worked six days a week, twelve hours a day. We lived in a slightly conservative area, so because of the stigma associated with food stamps and my family’s pull-yourself-from-the-bootstraps mentality, we refused to receive help from anyone, including the government.

As an AmeriCorps member, however, I’m beginning to experience how difficult it is to budget when there is little to go around. (A note: Because the AmeriCorps year is considered a year of service, we receive a yearly salary of $11,100.)

Encouraged from our national office to apply for food stamps, I finished the application in early September. It took six weeks from the time I applied to the moment I received my benefits. In that time, my car broke down, requiring $800 in repairs. The second most expensive thing I own – my computer – also broke down, requiring $100 in repairs.

I’m lucky to have had friends and family to help me through this time, but I realized how vulnerable those of low income are to any spontaneous change. $900 was almost a month’s income for me, and yet, I was forced to pay it because my job requires it, and the city I live in lacks an adequate public transportation system.

If this situation were to happen to me as a single mom trying to feed my kids, I would not have been able to wait six weeks for assistance. I would need that money for food and depend on it every month.

This is oftentimes the situation that our participants are in. Between rent, utilities, and those spontaneous problems that arise, food can be farther down on the list of priorities than maybe it should be. I’ve heard many people say that they have to choose between paying the utility bill and paying for medications. Maybe one month they’ll worry about eating well, but the next month they have to pay their landlord.

For me, receiving a small salary was a choice. The opportunity to work for Gleaners and to serve the community was something that I valued more than getting a large paycheck. For our participants, it’s never a choice to constantly be in that dangerous balance, where the scale can be tipped so easily.

For those of you who volunteer with OFL or work with an organization that serves low-income populations, this vulnerability may be an important thing to keep in mind. I can’t say that I’m a spokesperson for the poor, so I encourage you to look at these resources to continue thinking about this issue: