A photo of participants posing with their new Crock-Pots.
Workshop participants collect their new Crock-Pots. Photo by Mary Otto

The humble Crock-Pot: many of us used to own one, or still do.  

Crystal Nicholas had one, and the stout little slow cooker remained tucked away in her cabinet for 20 years. She only took it out a few times, to heat meatballs for buffets. But one day, Nicholas, who is the community development coordinator at the DC Central Kitchen, saw her homely old appliance with new eyes.  

The vision came after a conversation with a DC Central Kitchen colleague, outreach worker Hilary Espinosa, who was telling the story of a man she was trying to help stretch his food stamps, an increasingly common challenge here in the District.  

Times are hard, and that means tight household budgets, including the grocery bill. Food stamp enrollment has increased 10% in the past year, to more than 99,400 poor people here in the city, the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center reports. The average monthly benefit is about $105 per person, according to the Department of Agriculture, or $3.30 a day.  

What if there was a tool Nicholas and her colleagues could put into the hands of such people? A simple money-saving, time-saving tool that could transform cheap ingredients into healthy meals?  

The mighty Crock-Pot! “If you use a Crock-Pot, you can throw in a super-tough piece of meat, a potato … some beans. You have a whole meal that is ready and waiting for you,” said Nicholas. “It is the perfect thing.”  

The device, dubbed the Crock-Pot by the Rival Company, was first put on the market in 1971. Over the years, other manufacturers have come up with their own versions of the slow cooker in an array of shapes, designs and sizes, some large enough to accommodate whole chickens and roasts. Many are equipped with programmable timers and heat settings that allow the ingredients of an entire meal, such as corned beef and cabbage, seafood chowder, or chicken stew to be tossed into the pot in the morning, to be ready by dinnertime.  

“If you are working and have three hungry children, you can sit down and there is a meal,” said Nicholas. It gives you time to talk about your day, she said.  

Working with her colleagues at the DC Central Kitchen, she came up with a plan. They would go out into struggling city neighborhoods, offering slow cooker workshops and giving participants their own pots to take home.  

But it took awhile to get the project off the ground. Where would they get all those Crock-Pots? Nicholas’ first efforts, requests to churches and community centers for new or gently used slow cookers, didn’t get many responses. So she decided to go straight to the source of the Crock-Pot, the Rival Company, now part of Boca Raton-based Jarden Consumer Solutions.  

Officials there decided to support her project.  

“We understand the financial challenges families are facing. And thankfully, the Crock-Pot brand offers an affordable option to preparing healthy home-cooked meals,” said Tricia McKenzie, associate brand manager at Jarden.  

“As the original slow cooker, Crock-Pot is proud to be in a position where we can work with the DC Central Kitchen project helping families prepare meals on a budget.”  

The first shipment of 75 brand-new Crock-Pots arrived at the DC Central Kitchen last fall, completely free of charge.  

The Crock-Pots got Nicholas and her team through four workshops, at sites including the Lincoln Heights/ Richardson Dwellings Family Enhancement Center in Northeast, as well as SOME’s Barnaby House apartments, the Opportunities Industrialized Center and the ARCH DC Training Center, all in Southeast.  

Nicholas went back to the manufacturer for more Crock-Pots. This time, the pots were free, but DC Central Kitchen was asked to pay for the shipping.  

“Everybody here is a chef … because we all have to cook”  

 

One recent afternoon found Nicholas, Espinosa and others unpacking cartons of cookers in the community room at the D.C. Housing Authority’s Sibley Plaza Apartments, busy preparing for a class for Ward 6 residents displaced from their homes by a revitalization project.  

City officials heard about the Crock-Pot project and decided to host a workshop through the New Communities Initiative as one of a series of community building events designed to keep neighbors connected while the work goes forward.  

“It’s kind of tough when you are going through redevelopment, to maintain a sense of community,” said Nakeisha Neal, of the Deputy Mayors’ Office of Planning and Development. “This is a good way to do it.” 

Around her in the community room, about 50 neighbors – all women – caught up with one another, laughing and chatting over samples of Crock-Pot Chicken and Vegetable Chowder. Then Nicholas launched into the class.  

“Everybody here is a chef,” she offered. “Because we all have to cook. We all have to eat.”  

Her revelation that $13 worth of groceries made a hearty meal for six drew appreciative murmurs from the audience. Then she and her colleagues provided a combination of food handling and nutritional information, slow cooking techniques and smart shopping tips served up with plenty of encouragement. 

By the end of the workshop, each participant had collected the ingredients for her first slow cooker meal, a recipe book and a shiny new Crock-Pot.  

“I’m going to make the chicken and vegetable chowder tonight,” said Kimberly Seth as she headed out with her arms full of supplies.  

“I’m going to make the seafood gumbo with mine,” Maria Henry said. “I love to cook, I have two children. This is really convenient.”  

“Now I can cook slowly,” said Cynthia Henry, “without all the grease.”  

Once again Nicholas is out of slow cookers, but she is hoping for a grant to continue her efforts. She is convinced the initiative is having an impact. A Crock-Pot and a small bag of groceries might seem like small things, but in the right hands, they are powerful, she believes, even transformative.  

“It’s not just a Crock-Pot and some food,” she says “but tools that will empower you to break the cycle of poverty.” 


Crock-Pot Chicken and Vegetable Chowder  

1 lb. boneless chicken breasts, chopped  

1 can (10 3/4 ounces) cream of potato soup  

1 can (14 1/2 ounces) chicken broth  

1 package (10 ounces) frozen broccoli cuts  

1 cup carrots, sliced  

1 jar (4 1/2 ounces) mushrooms, drained  

1/2 cup chopped onion  

1/2 cup whole kernel corn, undrained  

2 cloves garlic, minced  

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves  

1/3 cup half-and-half  

Mix chicken, broth, soup, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, onion, corn, garlic and thyme in the Crock-Pot. Cover, cook on LOW for 6 hours. Stir in half-and-half. Turn Crock-Pot to HIGH. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Make sure to follow all the manufacturer’s instructions as to safety and food handling.