Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cooking Matters!

Yes, cooking does matter.

Anyone trying to eat nutritious meals on a budget will find it far easier if they know some basics of nutrition, how to shop for healthy food, and how to cook meals from scratch.  And yet, our experience is that many adults lack those skills.  Families eat away from home about half the time, and schools are less likely to offer courses that include nutrition and cooking.  Rates of obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and other diet-related conditions are rising dangerously.  Combine those factors with the difficult economic times and high rates of families experiencing food insecurity in this country and the result is that many children are not getting the nutritional foundation for good health as they grow up.

Megan Cazer, Program Associate
Cooking Matters Colorado
What can be done?  Cooking Matters tackles this problem by offering courses in cooking and nutrition to low-income adults and children across the country.  Cooking Matters is the service arm of Share Our Strength, a national non-profit organization that is working to end childhood hunger in the US through its “No Kid Hungry” campaign.

In addition to ensuring that children have enough to eat, it’s important that what they eat promotes good health.  Therefore, the goal of Cooking Matters is to, “empower families with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to prepare healthy and affordable meals.”

There are about 33 organizations throughout the US that provide Cooking Matters courses.  The largest is Cooking Matters Colorado, which, in 2010, taught 170 classes with a total of 2113 participants.

We visited and met with Megan Cazer, Program Associate for Cooking Matters in Denver, CO.  Megan has a master’s degree in Nutrition and a rich family tradition of cooking.  She works with agencies in Denver County to schedule Cooking Matters courses, and she and others in the office coordinate all the courses in Denver and surrounding counties.  Megan also teaches any of the courses for which there aren’t enough volunteer chefs or dieticians, coordinates all the volunteers for the courses in Denver, and oversees the dietitians who serve internships with Cooking Matters. 

Megan explained that Cooking Matters offers 6 different courses:
  • Cooking Matters for Adults, with optional supplements for parents of preschoolers and for people affected by diabetes
  • Cooking Matters for Families, designed for one child ages 8-12 and one parent
  • Cooking Matters for Kids
  • Cooking Matters for Teens
  • Cooking Matters for Childcare Professionals
  • Shopping Matters, a one-time grocery store tour
Each course includes its own curriculum and workbooks for each participant full of lesson materials, recipes, and quick tips.  Workbooks for the adult and family courses are available in Spanish and English.  All the volunteer chefs and nutritionists are trained in how to best deliver the curriculum, and the Cooking Matters website even has a few videos to help.

Each session of the 6-week courses lasts 2 hours.  Typically, half of the session focuses on cooking and the other half on nutrition.   The list of topics is long, including what healthy eating looks like, the different food groups, basic culinary skills, calorie levels, how to read nutrition labels, the value of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, how to reduce fat, how to stretch your food dollars, how to have a well-stocked pantry, etc.  All the recipes included in the workbook can be made on a SNAP (food stamps) budget.

Participants go home at the end of each of the first 5 classes with a bag full of the groceries needed to make the food items they practiced during the session a useful kitchen tool, such as a spatula, cutting board, or measuring cups.  After the last class, they go home with the workbook, a graduation certificate, and the knowledge enabling them to make more healthy, delicious, and affordable meals.

Each course is held at a host agency site, for example, schools, social service agencies, public housing, WIC offices, and Head Start centers.  The only requirements are that the site can recruit 12-15 course participants, that there is a room large enough to hold the class, and that there is a sink available for washing hands and produce.  Also, because most of the funding for Cooking Matters courses comes from SNAP-Ed (the educational grants part of the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), sites must serve low-income people.  For schools, 50% or more of students must qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches.  

Creating personal pizzas
What are the classes like?  We met Megan at the Sixth Street Elementary School cafeteria, where she was teaching the last session of Cooking Matters for Families from 4:00 – 6:00 PM.   When we arrived, we helped Megan and her volunteer assistant, Elsa Col√≥n, prepare for class.  Megan had brought all the kitchen equipment and food, so all that was needed was to set out the cutting mats, tools, and food items needed to make individual pizzas and banana pudding.

The class had about 8 adult women and about 10 kids.  All members of the class were Spanish-speaking, so Yolanda (a school cafeteria worker who had organized the class), Elsa, and sometimes the children translated what Megan said to the mothers.

Pizza ready for the oven
As the class arrived, they first reviewed the previous lesson.  Had anyone made the broccoli soup?  No?  How about the fruit smoothies?  Yes.  Many had, with all sorts of different fruits.
Then the class washed hands and moved to the cooking stations.  Megan was great at keeping everyone, including the kids, busy and involved in the preparation.  They mixed pizza sauce, shredded cheese, sliced all manner of vegetables, and assembled it all on individual whole-wheat pita breads.  Megan had also supplied Feta cheese and turkey pepperoni.  Everyone was encouraged to assemble their own pizza, with only 2 rules – each must have at least one added vegetable and a maximum of 4 pepperoni slices.  When all were done, they went into the oven until the cheese melted.

Meanwhile two sets of kids were making banana pudding by putting 3 ripe bananas into zip-loc bags, mushing it with their hands until it had no lumps, then adding ½ cup yogurt, ½ cup applesauce, and a healthy dose of cinnamon. They then cut off the corner of the bag and piped the resulting pudding onto graham crackers.

Making banana pudding

The class ate the results and seemed delighted – we can vouch for the surprisingly yummy banana pudding!
Enjoying individual pizzas

Next it was time for a final bit of fun – the class played a “trivia” game based on the lessons of the previous 5 weeks. 

Reviewing with a trivia game
Then the final three events were the graduation ceremony (each participant received a certificate and each family received an oven mitt), a course evaluation, and a discussion about what each of the participants had gotten out of the course.  One said that she’d had a set of recipes that she cycled through, and now she was glad to have some new recipes to include.  Another said she was trying to include all the food groups in her family dinners.  Others said they looked at the package ingredients at the grocery store more.  They all agreed that they were trying to include more fruits and vegetables in their meals.

Since most members of Cooking Matters classes may be eligible for SNAP, we were very glad to see Cooking Matters’ SNAP Outreach Coordinator, Grey Gorman, come near the end of the class and offer his services to class participants.  We learned from Grey that Colorado had been one of the worst states in terms of the percent of those eligible who actually received SNAP (food stamp) benefits.  The reasons were many, including a very long and cumbersome application process, extremely long wait times, and many myths about the eligibility and implications of receiving SNAP.  So now, Cooking Matters and other agencies are working to turn that around and make sure that those eligible receive the food assistance to which they are entitled.

Overall, we were impressed by the enthusiasm of the mothers and kids, the relaxed confidence of their instructor Megan, and the useful, thorough materials in the Cooking Matters course workbook.  We’d like to see Cooking Matters offered all over the country.

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