"They can either make or break your whole trip." That's the level of importance towboat crews place on the value of a cook.
Those whose careers are based on our nation's inland waterways know it is a lifestyle that comes with challenges. Not only are there physical demands, there are the emotional demands of spending a month at a time separated from family and the comforts of home. As a result, the galley of a vessel becomes all the more important.
"What the cook does and how they run the galley affects the morale of everyone on board," says a deckhand on the Ingram Barge Company vessel Aubrey Harwell Jr. Cook Belinda Orange agrees.
"It always seems like I am more than a cook out here," she says. "For some of them, I am like their mother or their sister. After twenty-eight days on the river, you are definitely family!" And, like with most families, life is centered around the kitchen and meal times. "They're missing their loved ones and their lives back home, and the galley is a major source of comfort for them." That's why barge companies like Ingram continue to invest resources and training into what goes on in the kitchen.
The culinary style on towboats has not always been the healthiest, however. It was borne largely out of southern traditions. For most of the industry's history, you'd find plenty of fried foods prepared with lard or shortening, big breakfasts complete with biscuits and gravy, a river staple, and plenty of sugary pies, cakes, and cookies for deserts. While these represented the ultimate in comfort foods for homesick crews, the health effects of such a diet are now evident. Obesity and its associated medical complications continue to grow in the United States, and those who work on the river are not immune.
Enter Andrew Gates, Manager of External Education-River Operations at WKCTC. "It really becomes a safety issue on the river," says Andrew. "You're looking at an increased chance of stroke and heart problems. Plus there are effects like sleep apnea. Crews have to be well-rested and alert."
As the college looked at training needs for the river industry, the area of nutrition education quickly emerged. "We've seen it most in the wheelhouse crew," adds Andrew. "Towboat captains generally tend to do the worst. They've come out of working on deck, moving to a job that is more sedentary yet stressful. They aren't burning as many calories, and their eating habits don't change. You can pretty much predict weight gain over the move from the deck to the wheelhouse."
Once the need for a change was identified, Dawn Null, a registered dietician from SIU, was brought on board. She completed her doctoral dissertation on the health and nutrition implications of working on a towboat, and the study formed the basis of a new training program at WKCTC.
"We brought some cooks in and started to build a program that would help reverse the negative health trends in the river industry," says Andrew. "There was a general awareness that they needed to cook healthier for the crews, so we built he eduction needed to get them there." The program includes basic nutrition, food modifications, and portion control. Cooks complete online course material and also participate in labs at the school's six-station galley simulator.
Because of the galley's role in crew morale, making drastic changes to meals is risky, however. "Any towboat crew will tell you, 'Don't mess with the meal'," says Andrew. "There are many long-standing traditions on the river, and this one may be strongest." So cooks aren't tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Through the program at WKCTC, they are learning to modify their existing recipes by using alternate ingredients and preparation approaches that make foods healthier without significant changes to the final meals. Plus they are learning to serve up more options.
"We have fish every Friday, for example," says cook Belinda Orange, "and I will still do fried fish. But I will also offer a baked alternative. We always try to keep options available for the crews." She's also altered other recipes such as baking mini-apple pies as opposed to deep-frying them, and she keeps fresh fruit salads, yogurts, and other healthy options for deserts.
"My captain will go through several dishes full of fruit salad," laughs Belinda. Most cooks are assigned to a primary boat, and, as a result, they get to know their crews along with their likes and dislikes.
"Every crew wants certain things. I get to know them. I get to know their likes and dislikes." As a result, cooks are able to tailor their meals to suit their crews. The overall goal is to not only be healthy but to keep meals tasty and attractive.
Belinda travels with her own recipes as well as cookbooks. A shelf in her room is populated with several volumes from Cooking Light. Other cooks have been known to bring small suitcases of recipe books on trips.
"I've only been with the company for three years," adds Belinda, "and I've already seen a big change in the way we're eating. I especially see it among the younger guys who are coming on."
And companies like Ingram are taking information about good nutrition to more than just the cooks; they are educating everyone in the company.
"It comes down to education of both our cooks and crews," says Ron Robbins, Manager of Training and Devleopment. "Crew members receive training through various sources. The Crew Endurance Management System (CEMS), a program jointly developed by the U.S. Coast Guard and industry, provides strategies to assist crew members understand their overall nutritional requirements and how to evaluate nutritional needs so they eat appropriately prior to both work and rest periods. Associates can also receive health and nutrition assistance through the company-provided Onlife wellness program. Nutrition and wellness experts assist associates to develop diet and exercise plans to achieve their personal health goals."
Thus far, about 850 cooks from multiple barge companies have been trained through the WKCTC program, and it has been dubbed the Seamen's Church for cooks. Ron Robbins at Ingram has nothing but praise for the new program. "The instructors have embraced the industry by spending time on the river and tailoring their curriculum to enable our cooks the opportunity to provide improved nutritional benefit to their crews. This program will be updated every two years to provide up-to-date information during each phase. This is another example of the successful interaction between WKCTC and Ingram Barge Company."