Chef Najma
August 14, 2015

Nearly 18 million children nationwide lose access to free and reduced-price school meals during the summer, resulting in a major gap for families struggling with food insecurity. To address this seasonal spike in hunger, the Maryland Food Bank and hundreds of other food banks in the Feeding America network are working hard to meet the increased need that results from school being out.

After graduating from the Maryland Food Bank's FoodWorks culinary program several years ago, Najma Jones is now a full-time chef in the MFB's Charles T. Bauer Community Kitchen. In the summer, Najma and her team increase meal production from 4,500 meals a week during the school year to 4,500 meals a day. In this behind-the-scenes Q&A, Najma talks about her firsthand experience with food insecurity, her job in the kitchen and the importance of child nutrition.

Q: As a chef at MFB, your work is centered on providing meals to food-insecure children. Have you ever been on the other side of the table?

Yes. My first experience with the Maryland Food Bank was when I was little. My place of worship would receive food from the food bank. And then more recently, my son started bringing home food from his school. I never knew where it was coming from until I was accepted into the FoodWorks program a few years ago.

Q: As a mother of five school-aged children, how do you juggle your limited resources?

I always count up how many meals I need to feed my kids every day. They get free breakfast and lunch at school, but when summer comes, I have to count out how many extra meals I have to come up with every week.

Q: When cooking meals for the food bank kitchen and for your own kids, how do you balance out nutrition and kid-friendly meals?

The nutritional guidelines aren't a problem. It's not hard to cook healthy foods for kids. Healthy can be delicious.

We want children to appreciate real foods. When they get string beans and watermelon in the summer, it’s coming right from the farm. We want children to know what real string beans look like—it's not just the green mush they see in the cans.

Q: When you and the team are producing 4,500 meals a day, what's a typical day like for you?

I get here at 5:30 a.m., start at 6. It's a mad rush for about ten minutes –  getting all the food into the ovens and then starting production and prep for the meals in the coming days. We always stay two days ahead—sometimes even three days ahead depending on the menu. It can be crazy, but we've gotten used to it. At this point you could tell us we needed 100-200 extra meals one day and it wouldn't be a problem.

Q: What about your job makes all of this work worthwhile?

My heart goes into every meal, not only because FoodWorks has changed the direction of my life, but because it has allowed me to change the lifestyle for my family. My kids eat this food every day.

For me, it's not just about cooking food. It's about feeding children in need and my own children too.

Tags: Hunger Heroes , Child Hunger , Maryland , Maryland Food Bank

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