By Susan Swagler
Ama Shambulia is bringing people together and changing lives one healthy dish at a time.
She is the Healthy Living Programs director of Urban Ministry Inc., a community-based nonprofit in Birmingham. A graduate of Culinard who worked with Chris Dupont at Café Dupont, Shambulia is a certified health coach and an educator and advocate for wellness who combines her passions for healthy, natural foods; organic gardening; and social enterprise through West End Community Café (WE Café) and West End Community Gardens (WE Gardens).
There was a soup kitchen at Urban Ministry before there was a café, and while it served a purpose, it didn’t really move the community forward. WE Café not only serves the community, it regularly brings visitors to that community and offers people the space to help one another.
WE Café customers pay what they can, and some simply can’t. So they might bus tables or volunteer to hostess or help with parking. For those who can pay, $5, $10 or $15 are the suggested donations. If someone pays $10, that helps cover food and labor. Pay $15, and you’ll cover food and labor and the cost of a meal for another person.
The menu, developed by Shambulia and executive chef and chef instructor McKinzie Harrison, changes weekly but is foundationally the same each month. For instance, the third Wednesday is always chicken day. That chicken might be in an enchilada or in a soup or roasted with lime, garlic and cilantro. The second Wednesday is pasta day, and the seasonal winter menu features grass-fed beef stroganoff. There is always a vegan option (right now it’s a mushroom medley over herbed brown rice) as well as fresh fruit and artisan breads.
WE Café’s commitment is to quality and wellness, Shambulia said. “The idea is to take foods that people are familiar with and give them a wellness experience. Everybody eats spaghetti, so our twist is we use good quality whole-grain pasta. You can eat what you like to eat, and it doesn’t have to be detrimental to your health. And the plate doesn’t have to be meat-centered. You can enjoy a meal without meat, and you can still feel satiated.”
WE Community Café serves food in a setting that’s good for the soul. Communal seating is encouraged, and long tables accommodate this. So you’ll see suit-wearing executives sitting next to people who might be homeless. Instead of an awkward situation, it offers people an opportunity to share a meal and get to know each other.
But there’s more to WE Café than this.
All the interns who work at the café receive valuable, practical training. The café provides healthy snacks and meals for children who participate in the after-school and summer learning programs.
“We’re looking at moving back into catering on Thursdays,” Shambulia said. “That is a way to consistently stay connected outside our community with people who might be able to do more. The regular café menu is great, but to be able to stretch and do specialized catering is always a lot of fun, too.”
Shambulia’s work at WE has roots – actual roots – in the community. Before there was a café, there was a garden.
WE Community Gardens, founded in 2008 through a partnership with the Church Without Walls, was Urban Ministry’s first social enterprise, and it provides fresh, healthy and affordable food for people in what otherwise would be a food desert. It, like the café and WE Learn’s after-school program, provides training and employment for young people from the community.
WE Gardens produces and donates more than 2,000 pounds of food each year and sells an additional 1,500 pounds of food at an affordable price through community markets. In the growing season, fresh produce for the café comes straight from WE Gardens. Every Thursday during the market season – March to November – Urban Ministry provides bags of fresh produce and other products to seniors in the community.
“They are our neighbors,” Shambulia said. “It’s our way of connecting with them and checking on them.”
WE Community Gardens is a successful venture for Urban Ministry, bringing in $25,000 to $30,000 each year, which covers a quarter to a third of program costs, Shambulia said. WE Community Gardens produce is sold at the Princeton Hospital Farm Stand and Pepper Place Market. Local restaurants buy this sustainably grown produce, and three beehives are producing honey that’s so popular it’s almost impossible to keep on shelves. Soon, WE market products will be available for purchase online.
From composting to natural food preparation, actively engaging local people of all ages in the garden and in the café allows Shambulia and her team to pass along real knowledge of where food comes from and, at the same time, teach healthy eating habits to combat obesity. It’s also a fresh-air opportunity to develop real-world skills and draw parallels to life, she said.
The idea with WE Community Gardens and WE Community Café was to build a component within the neighborhood and let the neighborhood have ownership over it.
“There’s one level of community where everyone sits around the table,” Shambulia told WBRC, “and there’s another level of community where everyone participates to … make it happen. It’s a lot of work. It’s good work though.”
This story originally appeared on www.AlabamaNewsCenter.com.
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