Chef David Coder explains to group of parents and children how to prepare vegetables for a healthy stir fry.
National non-profit Cooking Matters thinks it has found the recipe to reducing hunger and improving health for poor American families. Take one part research, one part budgeting, add groceries and cooking lessons, mix well with community support, and serve to low-income parents, children, and caretakers.
Eight families packed into the Moorhead Community Center in Aurora, Colo. in the middle of a muggy June afternoon to learn these lessons. Parents and children, from infants to middle-schoolers, packed around a large wooden table to watch Chef David explain how to cut onions julienne for the vegetable stir fry they will be making that afternoon. Two Spanish-speaking volunteers translated his instructions for preparing bok choy and last-minute substitutions for their dessert, a peach berry crisp.
It was only the second week of this six-week class, and there were already twice as many families as there were the week before. Parents wielded chefs’ knives tentatively to avoid bumping elbows around the crowded table. The younger kids eagerly dug their hands into a bowl of flour, oats, and sugar, mixing the topping for the dessert. At the end of each cooking lesson, each family receives a bag of groceries with the ingredients from the day’s recipe so they can practice at home, risk-free.
This group is part of a much larger system of cooking, nutrition and food budgeting classes that are offered by Share Our Strength, Cooking Matters‘ parent organization. Ruth Stemler, who directs Cooking Matters in Colorado, hopes to offer 200 classes this year and serve 7,500 families in the state — including pregnant teens and HIV-positive adults — all at no cost to the participants.
When Cooking Matters started in 1993, they looked at what skills and shopping behaviors are associated with food insecurity, and found a lot of myths working against them.
“We are breaking the myth of ‘it costs more to eat healthy’ every single week,” Stemler said. “It’s a matter of being mindful of what you’re doing, of comparing prices, of reading the label, of shopping in season.”
It’s also a matter of taste, literally. “It’s not a nutrition lecture where someone’s giving you a handout and telling you what the sources of Vitamin C are…we’re teaching them food competence and taste competence. And those are things that have been missing in nutrition education,” Stemler added.
Cooking Matters also offers lessons in food budgeting, taking participants to the grocery store for a hands-on lesson in price comparison, unit pricing, and meal planning. When they graduate from the program, families get a book of quick, healthy, cheap recipes they’ve learned from the class.
All of their participants are living at or well below the poverty level. They receive food stamps and some of them rely on food pantries to feed their families. While fresh fruits and vegetables are great, Cooking Matters wants to be sure families know how to make a healthy meal when canned or frozen produce are all that is available.
National director Janet McLaughlin points out that these families are incredibly resourceful; they just didn’t know how to make the healthiest choice on their food budget.
“You can’t make healthy foods at home if you don’t have healthy foods there,” she said. “Our philosophy is to meet families where they are, to make good decisions with what options are available…even if they’re shopping at a gas station, there’s a healthier choice to be made there.”
This is where community partners come in. Cooking Matters offers courses through venues that ask for their help — food pantries, community centers, local WIC (Women, Infants and Children) programs, schools and shelters. Since the program opened, more than 74,000 families across the country have participated in the Cooking Matters program.
McLaughlin says that while they’re working in 24 states and planning to expand to more, Cooking Matters isn’t large enough to start making a dent on insecurity numbers yet — according to USDA 2009 data, 50.2 million Americans live in food insecure households, which includes 17.2 million children.
But they have seen changes in the lives of their participants in their follow-up surveys six months after graduation. Roughly three out of four of their graduates report eating more fruits and vegetables, all while reducing their household spending.
Graduate Ramona Jones said she actually makes a food budget now, which includes her food stamps, and she’s trying healthy foods she never thought she would enjoy, like yogurt. She said she reads nutrition labels now, something the program reports a significant change in their participants.
“I used to see people in the store always reading those labels and I never knew what they were looking for,” she said. “I felt just dumb for not reading those labels.”
Those personal successes translate to the whole community. Ruben Medina, facility manager of the Moorhead Community Center, knows from personal experience that this community, which is largely Hispanic, is at high risk for diet-related illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. They can’t afford to attend the fee-based nutrition programs offered by the city.
“Most them are struggling between buying food and keeping a roof over their head,” he said. But now, he sees more people coming in for the Cooking Matters classes, and he sees everyone eating healthier, including the kids.
Those successes are keeping the demand for the course high — Stemler said they are having a hard time getting enough volunteers to keep up with all the requests.
See some of the recipes used in the classes: