Weekly on Thursday, Nicole Craig crafts a menu that includes two kinds of soup, a salad, two entrees — one vegetarian, one not — and a dessert. She spends the weekend shopping for ingredients, visiting local growers, such as Transition Gardens in Springfield or Groundwork Organics in Eugene, who provide her with the seasonal, organic produce integral to Positive Community Kitchen’s mission to deliver healthy, nourishing meals to its clients. She also shops in the pantry of partner agency FOOD for Lane County. Every Monday and Tuesday, Craig and her many volunteers cook up a storm in the kitchen. By Tuesday night, the “Delivery Angels” arrive to pick up the packaged meals and deliver them.
An idea to get behind. The seeds of Positive Community Kitchen (PCK) took root in 2011 when a group of parents at South Eugene High School wanted to create a garden as a place of healing and coming together for the students after two fellow students died in Yachats. Eventually, organizers looked to the California-based organization, Ceres Community Project, as inspiration for PCK’s present charge. “That model is providing free, organic, nutrient-dense meals to patients fighting a life-threatening illness. And using teenagers to help prepare those meals as a place of community gathering and supporting one another,” Craig says. “We started off serving about 10 families, and now we are serving 100 people.”
From culinary school to business owner. Craig graduated from college with a degree in psychology, but afterward “I didn’t think I was cut out for that,” Craig says. She realized her passions were cooking and nutrition. She moved to Hawaii to attend culinary school in the early 1990s, and then worked at the Grand Wailea resort in Maui, where she met her business partner. “We got along well. We eventually knew we wanted to run a business together, more specifically, a bed and breakfast” Craig recalls. “Within about a year of making that decision, we moved to Eugene and bought The Oval Door Bed and Breakfast. We ran that for 18 years.”
A time of transition. Yearning to expand the nutritional component of her food expertise, Craig went back to school in her mid-40s to earn her nutritional therapy practitioner (NTP) license. She intended to open a practice, but then her father, who had moved to Eugene in 2016, became ill. He died in early 2018. “I did not feel like I had the emotional bandwidth to have a client base at the time,” says Craig, who had inherited her father’s shares in the local distillery, Thinking Tree Spirits. “I took a detour,” she says, spending the next year working with the distillery owners — “two of my very best friends” — to get the business going.
Teachable moments. Craig also took a part-time position with PCK in order to maintain a toehold in the field of nutrition. When the head chef left PCK, Craig was offered the position. “I really wanted to incorporate my knowledge of nutrition into the job and start getting this valuable information out into the community.” Weekly, Craig presents “Circle Up,” a health/wellness tidbit that she discusses with the teens in the kitchen and includes in clients’ food bags. She aims to expand the reach of PCK’s educational arm in the future.
A good read. Craig considers herself a nutritional activist, “so I spend a lot of time spouting off about my theories of how we can do things better in this country,” she says with a laugh. She loves to read about food, too. “I just read a really wonderful book called ‘Sacred Cow.’ It is amazing. It’s really about how cows can save the planet.”
Bit by the cooking bug. Growing up, Craig lived all over the United States while her dad worked as a doctor for the U.S. Army. When he went into private practice the family settled in San Diego for several years. “My mom was such a great cook. We were really lucky to have her influence. She made things like ratatouille, and spaghetti from scratch, and Chicken Cacciatore. She made our meals almost every single night, and it was always fresh food. I made my first meal for the family when I was 11. I think I pulled out one of those old ‘Bon Appetit’ cookbooks. I made Chicken Supreme. I don’t know if it came out good. I remember thinking it was good, but I’m sure my family played along.”
Tasty combinations. Since the pandemic, PCK volunteers have been cooking in teams of five to safely limit the number of people working in the incubator kitchen space at The Barrow. But the seasonal tastiness coming from the kitchen has not wavered. “I’m a big fan of things that are international. I love cooking curries. I love cooking Latin American style food,” Craig admits. At PCK, “we do it with a very nutritious twist. Today, for example, we’re making vegetarian enchiladas, with a sweet potato and bean base and some zucchini. We’ll make a homemade mole sauce and we’re using a bit of goat cheese.”
Future goals, ongoing impact. PCK has a long-term goal of building its own kitchen and educational space. This time of year, PCK usually puts on its annual fundraiser, traditionally a sit-down dinner for about 150 people. COVID-19 has changed the rules. Instead, PCK will be holding a three-day online auction, Oct. 20-22. (Visit positivecommunitykitchen.org for sponsorship details.) Craig may spend long hours on her feet in the kitchen, but, she says, “every single time we get one of our delivery bags back with a note tucked in it that says, ‘I just want you to know this has changed my life,’ it absolutely slays me. Food is medicine. It can be so transformational. I recognize that we are making an impact on our community in little ways that can change the course of someone’s life.”