Three Squares volunteers with Kitchen on Fire chef Olivier Said. Photo: Sarah Nelson

For the past three years Sarah Nelson has run free cooking classes for low-income families under three different names. While working as a special projects coordinator for the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market she brought the program then known as Operation Frontline to the Bay Area.

That effort, a national initiative sponsored by the nonprofit Share our Strength, changed its name to the more apt Cooking Matters in October 2010. Last August, when Nelson left the farmers’ market, she took the cooking class concept with her and now heads up the non-profit organization Three Squares, which is holding a fundraising brunch at UC Berkeley’s Pauley Ballroom this Sunday.

Name changes aside, the core concept of this program remains the same: six weeks of cooking instruction that focuses on kitchen skills, fresh foods, and meal planning for those in need. Three Squares is a lean operation: in addition to Nelson, 31, the staff includes three AmeriCorps members and relies on 400 volunteers to teach about 15 classes a week in the Bay Area, typically two each week in Berkeley.

Three Squares has an office in San Francisco and receives support from a large Berkeley contingent, including chefs from Kitchen on Fire, Gather, and Chez Panisse alumni, as well as local home cooks.

Sunday’s brunch features donated chickens from Soul Food Farm, eggs from East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance, and produce from VegiWorks, Earthbound Farm, and Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Keynote speaker Sam Mogannam of the Mission District’s beloved Bi-Rite Market, will share his thoughts on why cooking matters.

Nelson recently brought Berkeleyside up to speed on what’s cooking with Three Squares over a rice bowl at Brasa.

Three Squares participants enjoy fruits of their labor. Photo: Sarah Nelson

Why the name  Three Squares?

I’m pretty old fashioned in my sensibility and I thought three squares is a nice expression for what we want everyone to have access to: three square meals a day.

Who do you partner with in Berkeley?

We work closely with the Ecology Center and their Farm Fresh Choice program. We work with Urban Adamah; some of their fellows intern for us once a week and  teach classes. And we also work with Lifelong Medical Care for low-income people who don’t have health insurance. We just finished a six-week class in their diabetes program – this one was in Spanish so it was an all-Hispanic group of 12.

Who from the Berkeley food world  supports Three Squares?

MikeC from Kitchen on Fire is really involved. He’s taught classes, recruited volunteer teachers from their cooking programs, and helped us with fundraisers like the one we’re having this week. If someone has gone through the apprentice program or the twelve-week basics class for Kitchen on Fire they can serve as a chef for us.

Olivia Rick, a line cook from Gather, is one of our best volunteers. She teaches two or three classes a week.  As does Mollie Katzen‘s recipe tester, Jenny Wheeler; Mollie is a fan of ours too.

And we’ve partnered with the Berkeley Student Food Collective. They’re enthusiastic about what we do, recruit volunteers, and helped us secure the space for the fundraiser at UC.

On the menu Sunday: Farro with mint and peas, chicken salad, greens with avocado and beets.

Why did you choose Sam Mogannam from Bi-Rite as your keynote speaker this year?

Sam understands that we need to help everyone — regardless of income — learn how to cook. He believes, as we do, that everyone should have access to good food. He’s a grocer and he’s also a chef so he thinks it’s important that people have the skills they need to work with raw ingredients. He’s not telling people to go to Chez Panisse and taste what Alice Waters and her chefs are making; he wants you to buy the raw ingredients and take them home and make something yourself.

That’s what we’re promoting too: we’re not coming in and saying we’ll prepare a healthy meal for you, we’re giving people the skills to do it themselves.

Do you cook at home?

I cook every day. I’m trying to learn how to make sourdough right now. It’s challenging. I also do a lot of craft cooking: I make my own yogurt and my boyfriend and I just made our own beer.

My roommate works at a farmers’ market and I worked at one for many years, so my dinner most nights is four different vegetables sautéed and served with rice. What Michael Pollan calls “dump and stir” cooking but the homemade kind – not from a can.

I’m really into DIY canning. Last year I canned a ton of tomatoes and this year I’m going to can even more because I’ve learned you can never can too many tomatoes. My roommate and I made a bunch of tomato sauce. Also apricot jam, because apricots are okay, but apricot jam is unbelievably good.

Three Squares founder Sarah Nelson

Can you tell us a about your food background?

I have always loved cooking. My first real chore at home was at age 11 when I was responsible for cooking the Sunday dinner. My sister had to do the dishes. It was the best arrangement ever. I used to roast a chicken every Sunday night and sometimes I would stuff it with pineapple. And I’d serve it with broccoli and rice pilaf. In college I always had a hot plate in my room.

After college I moved to France for four years, where I learned about farmers and farmers’ markets. I lived in Paris, and people there are so into seasonality. I got used to buying my food every day from the farmers’ market because that’s what people do there. I was a tour guide for a luxury bike tour company, and I stayed at the best hotels and ate at the best restaurants in France – Michelin star places – and got to know some amazing chefs and their food.

Is there anything particular about Berkeley that’s beneficial to Three Squares?

The food community in Berkeley is integrated in a way that it’s not in a lot of other places.  There’s the Berkeley Food Policy Council, Ecology Center, and a lot of different nonprofits. There’s a lot of synergy among the different groups and it really feels like a place where people are on the same page and get what we’re trying to do.

Berkeley is the first place we ever did a Cooking Matters class – at Kitchen on Fire, one of our first supporters. We have tons of volunteers from here too who make our programs possible.

What’s next for Three Squares?

We’re building support for a new program for community health workers or promotora, people trained by medical clinics to provide education, information, and support around health concerns. We’ve developed an eight-week program, so they can also offer nutrition information and teach cooking classes. We’re beginning to assist eligible residents access the food stamp program and help them choose groceries and learn recipes. Most of what we do is education but we want to connect people with programs that can help them eat better too.

And we’re looking into other ways people can donate, if they can’t volunteer on a regular basis. In the fall we’re starting “Share Your Table,” where we come help you cook a meal, you invite your friends, and they donate money, which will go directly to the cooking class program. We hope to kick it off with a week of dinners cooked by professional chefs in the community.

Tickets to this Sunday’s  Three Squares brunch at UC’s Pauley Ballroom, which costs $20, can be bought at the event ticketing website.  

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Lifelong Medical Care gets $1.1 million federal grant
Lifelong Medical Care: Helping communities for 36 years [03.05.12]
Berkeley’s Kitchen on Fire booms during economic bust [05.20.11]
Faith-based urban farm opens in Berkeley [06.20.11]
Berkeley Bites: Berkeley Student Food Collective [10.08.10]
Operation Frontline: Teaching the needy to cook in Bay Area communities [06.22.10]