How to do a food demo for 95 in a pandemic

  • Published: Thursday, May 21, 2020

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – A few shoppers glared at Jasmine Cobb, thinking she was one of those people hoarding supplies in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But instead of toilet paper, her cart brimmed with precisely 95 of each item on her list: sweet potatoes, red onions, cans of black beans and much more. That many jars of chili powder really turned heads.

“They were looking at me like, ‘What is wrong with this lady?!’” recalled Cobb, senior building property manager for Beyond Housing, a community development organization in northern St. Louis County. Eight stores and one packed-to-the max SUV later, Cobb had all the ingredients needed for the quickly reimagined nutrition education collaboration with University of Missouri Extension in St. Louis County.

MU Extension had been scheduled to do live cooking demonstrations in March and April for the 95 residents of Beyond Housing’s Pine Lawn and Rosie Shields Manor senior living facilities — part of a grant to a local community development organization, A Red Circle. When COVID-19 restrictions upended those plans, the partners scrambled to come up with an alternative.

The education piece for seniors was an important part of the grant, said A Red Circle founder and Executive Director Erica Williams. Nutrition education helps build community engagement and excitement for growing and preparing healthy food — key to addressing food security issues in an area she describes as a food desert.

In partnership with MU Extension’s Missouri EATS program, the city of Pine Lawn and other community groups, A Red Circle is working to turn vacant land into the North County Agricultural Education Center. This urban teaching farm will be the hub for a community garden; fresh produce sales; cooking demonstrations and classes; nutrition, health and fitness education; harvesting, marketing and growing advice; and community events and activities.

The cooking demonstrations were part of the Missouri Department of Agriculture grant to help kick-start this community project around food security and improved health and nutrition, Williams said.

MU Extension nutrition and health specialists Leslie Bertsch and Emily Barbee brainstormed alternatives with Williams and Cobb. They decided on a “remote” project — providing a recipe and ingredients that Cobb would deliver to each resident. Bertsch and Barbee then prepared a simple “how to” video that Cobb sent to residents to view on their smartphones as they prepared the meal.

They chose a black bean and sweet potato chili recipe from MU Extension’s Seasonal and Simple app (available as a web app at

A delicious and nutritious ingredient that can be prepared in healthy, tasty ways, sweet potatoes are likely to be grown at the nearby North County Agriculture Center, completing that farm-to-table circle, Bertsch said.

Through weekly newsletters, Cobb generated excitement about the grocery delivery, video and recipe. She also stepped up to shop for, package and deliver individual bags with enough ingredients to make an eight-to-12-serving version of the recipe — something particularly appreciated during a time when many residents were self-confined and unable to go out and shop on their own.

“Without Jasmine’s work and effort, this never would have happened. It was a true partnership,” Bertsch said.

“This has given us an unexpected opportunity to make everybody step up their game, to figure out ways that we’re including everybody, that nobody’s getting left behind, and to keep everybody safe and healthy,” Cobb said. “There are lots of ways to do that. We just have to care about doing it and be creative.”

What did the residents think?

“There was good feedback, that it was fun, that the recipe was good. They are looking forward to doing more,” Williams said.

Photos available for this release:
Ingredients for 95 batches of black bean and sweet potato chili. Photo courtesy Jasmine Cobb.
Ingredients for the chili recipe were delivered to residents at two senior living facilities. Photo courtesy Jasmine Cobb.

Writer: Katherine Foran

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Leslie Bertsch

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