Oct. 6—How does a public relations major, turned writing center director, turned granola-entrepreneur wind up teaching free cooking classes?
Just ask Jenna Kranz, founder of the nonprofit Uncomplicated Kitchen, which aims to "improve food security through educational outreach."
Cooking with Jenna
Kranz admits that her background is "kind of wild." She was immersed in academia, getting a graduate degree in rhetoric and composition and going on to work in university writing centers in Florida, where she lived at the time. It was rewarding — she enjoyed helping people craft and form their voices through writing, but cooking was something she always loved.
"I'm just good at food," she laughed.
And she wanted to share that with the world.
"I felt a calling to go back to the kitchen."
She spent a number of years building out a granola business to sell at farmer's markets, first in Florida then in Sylva, where she and her husband moved when he got a teaching position at Western Carolina University. She loved the work she did with her granola business, too, but as she met people at farmer's markets she saw a common thread.
Not everyone knew how to cook the produce they bought.
"People would come up to me and say, 'Jenna, how do I use kale? What is this?'" Kranz said. And she would talk with farmers at the market who experienced the same thing.
One day, when a friend asked Kranz how to use beets, Kranz decided to invite her over for dinner, so they could cook together.
"We cooked side by side," Kranz said. They joked it was called "Cooking with Jenna."
As a natural-born teacher and avid gardener, Kranz felt right at home helping people learn new cooking skills and how to use produce. With this seed planted, it's easy to see how Uncomplicated Kitchen was born.
One day, in 2019 she read an article about movers and shakers in the food industry. Kranz realized then that she, too, had the skills to make a difference in the food world.
"I walked into the kitchen and told my husband, 'I want to build a nonprofit,'" Kranz said.
It was a risk, but one she was willing to take.
"I had a huge opportunity to help as many people as possible, but it was terrifying to leave a business that was doing well," Kranz said.
She and her husband had just finished building out a commercial kitchen space for her granola business in their basement, complete with commercial-grade cookware, but she knew the nonprofit was where she should channel her skills and energy. So she sold her granola-making equipment and began teaching free cooking and food preservation classes, mostly out of her home, but also through the Jackson County Cooperative Extension.
Then, the pandemic hit.
'A magic in what we do'
"As soon as I was ready to gear up, COVID hit," Kranz said. "So I was encouraged to start teaching online and use social media and word of mouth."
The pandemic ended up being helpful for growing Uncomplicated Kitchen. As people were stuck at home and making less frequent trips to go to the grocery store, Kranz was able to connect with people in the community.
"I'm a big proponent of learning how to use your pantry, and that was what people needed to do," she said.
So she set to work, with the goal of making cooking healthy and using fresh, local ingredients as easy as possible. Kranz began consulting people one-on-one — she taught them how to put together a meal plan and shop for groceries on a budget.
Teaching and consulting over Zoom has been successful — Kranz has students from Western North Carolina and beyond who join the class each week. She even has one loyal student she knew in Florida. And her students aren't just beginners. People of all skill levels and all backgrounds join to learn more about using pantry staples to put together meals that are tasty, affordable and vegetable-heavy.
And Kranz gets to see growth in students who show up week after week. One student, she recounts, was one of the last to finish prep work when she started classes last year. Now that student is one of the first to finish.
"I realized there was magic in what Uncomplicated Kitchen was doing and a real need for it," said Kranz.
The classes are free and open to anyone who wants to attend — donations are accepted, but she says she'd never turn anyone away. With this growth, Kranz knew she needed a dedicated office space for Uncomplicated Kitchen. Lately, Kranz has been working to make that a reality with a grant from Great Smokies Health Foundation.
'Make Soup, Not War'
It's apparent that Kranz stays busy. On a chilly fall morning, she has all the windows to her new office space in Sylva open. She and her 3-year-old daughter Josie are there together, about to sand down a wall so Kranz can paint the room a fitting color for a food nonprofit: Avocado Green.
Kranz is brimming with energy. A donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, bought a brand new fridge for the space. Kranz is also adding in a donated deep freezer. Shelves line the walls and are stacked with cooking supplies — another donor sent over a Cuisinart stand mixer.
"It's such a gift," Kranz said of the community support Uncomplicated Kitchen has received.
Although she won't be teaching classes out of her office space, the space will function as a community hub for Uncomplicated Kitchen.
Kranz says the goal will be to let community members "check out" cooking supplies if they don't have them at home. She will offer in-person consultations and meal-planning help in a cozy room with a large, colorful tapestry emblazoned with the phrase "Make Soup, Not War," which Kranz says perfectly encompasses her philosophy. Cookbooks and recipe boxes will be available soon, too.
She even hopes to have "perfect pantry" boxes available for the taking, stocked with nutritious pantry basics like healthy oils, grains and spices.
And in the meantime, Kranz is still cooking classes over Zoom and teaching outdoor classes. She's also continuing to partner with local nonprofits and agencies to teach classes to their clientele as well. As of now, she's worked with the HIGHTS afterschool program, Jackson County Cooperative Extension, HERE in Jackson County and more, but she hopes to expand into Haywood County and beyond.
For Kranz, this is all about fulfilling the mission of Uncomplicated Kitchen — to reduce gaps in food education and access.
"Food security doesn't just mean having food in hand. The educational component is often left out, and that's what we do," Kranz said.
To learn more, visit www.uncomplicatedkitchen.org.