Chefs whip up funds for health care for the uninsured

A healthy diet might keep the doctor away, but a local nonprofit is using gourmet cooking to fund health care services for the uninsured.

Oasis Free Clinics in Brunswick is raising money through its second “Cooking With Oasis” series, which beams some of Maine’s best culinary minds into local foodies’ kitchens through interactive, virtual cooking classes.

Attendees will receive a shopping list so they can cook along with the class. They’ll be able to access a recording of the session for an additional 30 days. Contributed / Oasis Free Clinics

“We’re really super psyched that the folks who have signed up to be our chefs have agreed to participate,” said Anita Ruff, executive director of Oasis. “Especially if you are a foodie or cooking is your passion, it is pretty amazing.”

Three sessions make up this year’s edition of the fundraiser, which launched on Jan. 15 with a class from award-winning Chef Sam Hayward. Food writer Christine Burns Rudalevige will teach the next session at 6 p.m. Feb. 12, before Nikaline Iacono, owner of Brunswick’s Vessel and Vine, concludes the season on March 12.

Customers can buy tickets to Rudalevige and Iacono’s classes at cookingwithoasis.org. Each $75 ticket, which will include a shopping list, a link to a livestreamed class, and a recording that will remain online for 30 days, will help pay for primary medical services and routine dental care at the state’s largest free clinic, according to Ruff.

Volunteer dentist James Oshetski and dental assistant Abby Dodge at Oasis Free Clinics. Contributed / Oasis Free Clinics

“We’ve helped hundreds and hundreds of people over the years,” Ruff said, adding that Oasis averages about 400 clients each year. “Mostly people who have fallen through the cracks of the traditional health care system.”

The clinic’s leadership conceived of the series in 2020 after the pandemic scuttled plans for two in-person fundraisers. After learning that an out-of-state nonprofit was raising money through virtual cooking classes, Ruff and her team decided to borrow the model.

“It just turned out that we had enough amazing chefs in our community,” Ruff said. “We thought we actually could pull it off.”

A “fabulous turnout” of about 200 people bought classes last year, which raised about $14,000  Ruff said.  And while customers could feel assured their money was going to a good cause, they also got plenty of culinary value from the sessions.

“They’re really fun,” Ruff said, highlighting viewers’ ability to interact directly with the teachers through a chat feature. “To be able to engage with a James Beard-winning chef in his home kitchen is kind of amazing.”

Food writer Christine Burns Rudalevige will teach a class focused on local animal proteins at 6 p.m. on Feb. 12. Contributed / Christine Burns Rudalevige

Rudalevige, editor-in-chief of “Edible Maine,” is returning to the program after teaching a seafood class in 2021. Her hour-long class will entertain experienced cooks while remaining accessible to newbies, she said.

“I don’t like to intimidate people,” she said. “I try to get people to relax and have fun with it.”

Her menu will include locally-sourced animal proteins like sirloin from Bowdoinham’s Apple Creek Farm and sausage from Sowbelly Butchery in Jefferson. She’ll focus on how local meats can fit into a healthy, affordable diet.

“In the recipes I’ll be using, you use less meat to get the same amount of flavor, which is kind of a local foods tenet,” she said. “It’s a healthful meal. I think it plays right into the Oasis model of community health care.”

Proceeds from the fundraiser will go toward hiring a dentist for the clinic, Ruff said. She said many Mainers struggle to access dental care, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic.

It’s a worthy cause that will pair nicely with a homecooked meal, according to Rudalevige.

“I firmly believe that access to good food and access to health care are basic human rights,” she said. “So, if you love food, and you care about people getting healthy food and maybe helping to repair some of the damage caused by an unhealthy food system, it’s well worth your time and your money to contribute to the cause.”

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By Betty C. Giordano

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