This Des Moines woman is showing that cooking can change lives
Sue Hoss said she never thought of herself as one who could make a significant difference in other’s lives.
Yet here she was in a church kitchen, working alongside Jenny Wetzel.
“You got it, girlfriend,” Hoss said, while Wetzel packed brown sugar into a measuring cup for her famous chocolate chip cookies.
Wetzel has an intellectual disability. Hoss is a 48-year-old single woman, driven to excel in her career.
Hoss was a food magazine editor in Des Moines for 11 years before founding a cooking media company, Main Dish Media in 2009. And she also helped launch Plymouth Church’s coffee shop, Plymouth Grounds, three years later.
Yet making cookies with Wetzel was making a difference.
The coffee shop is run by students with intellectual disabilities. Teaching them to bake launched another new venture this fall, a digital cooking magazine geared for people with disabilities called Look, Cook, and Eat, at lookcookandeat.com.
Using recipes with few ingredients and several simple steps explained in videos with voice-overs, subscribers can easily follow along on tablets or laptops to cook their own meals, further easing the way to independent living.
“For me, to see people use this to cook is a big deal,” Hoss said. “I think this can make a difference.”
With reality television shows such as “Born This Way,” the population with intellectual disabilities is undergoing a surge in mainstream acceptance. But it wasn’t that way growing up for Hoss, whose younger sister JoEllyn was born with a chromosome deficiency. Her parents constantly had to push society for acceptance.
“I saw my mom just throwing herself into improving her life,” Hoss said. “You start to advocate for them. You end up being a cheerleader.”
Hoss grew up in California, and she left behind that life to find her own path, which included being a ski bum for a couple years in Colorado, culinary school and teaching in Japan.
It trained her in risk-taking.
She remembers her first overseas flight to Japan in 1990, when she questioned herself, fretting over the possibility of failure. Then it occurred to her.
“If I fail, I can go home,” she said. “Even a short time there would be more than a lot of people do. I’m at a point now … well, I haven’t died yet, so it will be OK.”
She left a job at Cuisine at home Magazine in Des Moines to found Main Dish Media, which has attracted large clients such Campbell Soup.
And she made that leap to standing alongside a very tentative and scared group of new employees at Plymouth Grounds.
“That first latte is terrifying,” Hoss said.
The students from Ruby Van Meter School, a secondary school for special-needs students in Des Moines, operate the coffee shop. At first, they are nervous about the hot liquids and the pressure of waiting on customers.
“They are afraid to get burned,” she said. “But that’s how life works.”
They learn by doing. In the past three years, they have become a treasured part of the church, which prides itself in its inclusiveness. The students learn to greet regular customers and gain the skills to be employed later.
“Seventy percent of the students employed here go on to part-time jobs,” said Melinda Collins, the barista coordinator. “And Susan brought in a culinary touch.”
Hoss began to take baristas back to the kitchen for one-on-one training in baking. She found out they loved it. Wetzel was one of the first. She is now 22 and can knock out batches of brownies and cookies with little supervision.
She takes pride in the product and has her name on the counter display featuring the cookies. The students have even learned to up-sell their own baked products at the counter, asking customers if they would like a cookie to go with their latte.
“They don’t get to do this at home,” Hoss said. “But I learned growing up with (my sister) that you just have to roll with it.”
They learn math and following instructions and quickly see the product of their labor. Their self-confidence grows with each batch. Church members have watched the students bloom and have seen how it affects Hoss.
“The joy she takes in it you see constantly,” said Valerie Miller-Coleman, minister of community engagement at Plymouth. “Sue loves what she does.”
It also gave Hoss another idea, one that could help more people.
She had done the math. Some 56 million people are disabled in the U.S. Wi-Fi and tablets are now common in the home.
She had analyzed the trends. We are now a more visual society. And more people with disabilities are trying to live independently.
But cooking is hard. Even the fully abled population is confused by recipes with numerous ingredients.
There are cookbooks for the disabled population, but what about an online magazine with new recipes in each issue six times a year? Her idea launched in October, and the second issue arrives in January.
Clients who subscribe to Look, Cook, and Eat come to a colorful website with easy ways to click on the kitchen tools needed and the ingredient list. Photos and a video take them step-by-step through the process of cooking.
She demonstrated a simple recipe for chicken tostadas with nine items, saying she likes to keep nutrition and cost in mind.
“When I learned about it, I felt like I discovered a gold mine,” said Sarah Mai of The Mission Project, a Kansas City area nonprofit that supports adults with developmental disabilities who live independently. “One of the hardest things when they live on their own is to be healthy and eat healthy.”
Video modeling is a proven approach to helping people with disabilities, she said. Her clients now use the service, and she’s touting it among other organizations nationwide.
“I believe in it,” she said. “I appreciate those who are pushing the envelope, using technology to teach.”
For Hoss, the experience hearkens back to her advice to her coffee shop students. She’s not quite sure yet if she will get burned. But that’s how life works. And she hasn’t died yet.
Lives: In Des Moines
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn., 1989; New England Culinary Institute, Montpelier, Vt., 1995 to 1997.
Career: Taught English in Tokyo, Japan, 1992 to 1994; pastry chef at Erna's Elderberry House, Oakhurst, Calif., 1996 to 1997; assistant/associate/managing editor, Cuisine at home Magazine, Des Moines, 1998 to 2008; founded Main Dish Media, 2009; helped launch Plymouth Grounds Coffee Shop, 2012; launched “Look, Cook, and Eat” online magazine, 2015
EARLIER PROFILES: With this story at DesMoinesRegister.com/PeopletoWatch, see profiles of Jodie Warth, chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Central Iowa, Rob Sand, a prosecutor in the area prosecutions division of the Iowa attorney general’s office, David Rezek, who directs and arranges music for the Des Moines Big Band; Joshua Barr, director of the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Department; Jennie Baranczyk, head coach of the Drake women's basketball team; Nancy Mwirotsi, who leads Pi 515, a nonprofit that teaches refugees how to code; and profiles of people selected to be part of the series in prior years.
15 PEOPLE TO WATCH IN 2016: ABOUT THE SERIES
These are central Iowans in business, arts, nonprofits, civic activism and nonelected government positions who are expected to make a difference in their fields of endeavor in 2016. Readers were invited to submit nominations. Selections were made by Des Moines Register editors and reporters. Look for profiles daily through early January.
COMING SUNDAY: Kris Saddoris, vice president of development, Hubbell Realty Co.