First, I would like to say this: I don’t know that I am capable of expressing how great a program this is… These people do amazing things, and I can’t stress that enough. I only hope that by sharing my experience with you, reader, that I can enlighten you as to how important and essential this program is.
I pulled up to Gleaners a few minutes past 6, a bit frazzled because rush hour traffic had been worse than I had remembered. I don’t head south during that time of day usually. On purpose.
When I walked in to the building, I was staring at the email I had received from Dorothy Hernandez, one of the volunteer coordinators with the Cooking Matters program. It contained detailed directions on how to get to Gleaners, and how to navigate through the giant warehouse to the classroom upstairs.
I walked into a hot, spacious room filled with other bloggers and the Cooking Matters volunteers. There was a table with three different kinds of dips: Mango Salsa, Tabbouleh and Hummus. There were also some healthy looking tortilla chips and mini pitas. After fashioning a name tag, I of course dug in to the delicious-looking dips. The recipes for all three, as well as the a copy of the recipe we would be preparing tonight, were on the table.
I grabbed a bottle of water and sat down.
There were tote bags on each seat, containing these wonderful fact sheets, brochures and a report called “It’s Dinnertime: A Report on Low-Income Families’ Efforts to Plan, Shop for and Cook Healthy Meals”. All the literature is regarding the Cooking Matters Program, a part of Share Our Strength. You might have viewed advertisements and endorsements on Food Network for this program. It is a great program, and the report was filled with some eye-opening information about how low-income families actually eat. It was produced in an effort to raise awareness about the eating habits of low-income families, and show why it’s important to help educate them in preparing healthy meals and manage their food budgets.
A few minutes in, we began the class with introductions. Our class leaders for the evening were Sara, Vani, Dorothy and Jake. Sara began by explaining the program, and informing us of the reach here in Michigan. Cooking Matters started off only in Southeast Michigan, but after partnering with Michigan State University, they are now in 33 counties! That’s amazing! They have gone from doing about 30 classes per year to doing over 100 classes! Another exciting fact is that their graduation rate (a “graduate” is someone who completes all the classes) is nearly 85%… and they have graduated about 1,400 people THIS YEAR.
Cooking Matters is a national program, and nationally the rate is about the same – 86% graduation rate. According the literature in my tote bag, in 2010, they were able to hold 1,000 classes, teach 11,900 low-income families and engage 1,500 volunteers. That’s HUGE. Also, from what Sara was saying, they have a huge demand for the program, but not enough volunteers.
That’s right – there are about 90 classes “ready to go” with at least 12-16 participants, ready to learn how to eat better, budget better and there just aren’t enough people to help them do that. Cooking Matters needs YOU.
After learning about the program a bit more, everyone introduced themselves around the room, including the bloggers in attendance. It was nice to see so many people there! There were also three volunteers who came to share their experiences.
It was great to hear their stories, and to learn what it’s like to help so many people. It must be so rewarding!!
The next part of the class was to talk about nutrition and healthy eating.
After going through some preliminary questions about what we think about when it comes to healthy eating, Vani held up the new My Plate:
This is the “new” Food Pyramid… except that it’s not a pyramid… and I think it’s one of the best initiatives by the USDA to promote healthy eating by far. We discussed the sizes and their relativity to one another on the plate, focusing on how small the protein size is. The approach was to help the “students” understand that your meal might not always look like this – casseroles, pizza, stews, etc. – might be a little more difficult to make sure you are getting all the groups and the right amount of each. Jake and Vani discussed ways to work with this, giving great ideas on how to build healthy pizzas for example.
The next thing we talked about was food labels.
We were each given an actual product container with a USDA food label on it, and then we discussed as a group. Having the actual product in my hands definitely helped and I can just imagine a student maybe learning this for the first time… how confusing it would be! Many of the methods used during this portion of the class were definitely meant to engage the students and were much better than just “talking at them” or “showing a presentation” as Sara mentioned. I agree wholeheartedly. I think the way the lessons were designed is a great way to involve the participants, and get them thinking about reading labels, and about what nutrition really means. Especially because reading food labels can be SO confusing! They make sure to talk about other labels on the packages, such as “Low Fat” or “Reduced Sugar” or “Zero Transfats” and what they really mean. This is very important for everyone to know!
After the nutrition portion, and some questions from the bloggers, we moved on to the actual meal preparation.
Jake had been cooking up some Quick-Cooking Barley while we worked through the first part of the course. The dish being prepared, Barley Jambalaya, consists of the following ingredients:
1 cup instant pearl barley
4 cups water
2 whole bay leaves
3 medium onions
2 medium celery stalks
1 medium green, red, yellow, or orange bell pepper
2 medium cloves garlic
1 Tablespoon canola oil
4 ounces ground turkey
2 (14-1/2 ounce) cans diced tomatoes, no salt added
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Jake invited six volunteers to come up and help prep the veggies. Prior to this, we discussed some basic food safety and sanitation procedures, all covered in more detail in the actual class. Jake also briefly addressed knife safety, showing us how to hold a knife while cutting, how to cut properly, and how to position our free hand so as not to cut our fingers off. He also gave a pretty comical demonstration on how not to hand a knife to someone…
…but it ended with the proper method.
As a group, we all went off to properly wash our hands, then came back to start cutting vegetables. Jake showed us how to cut the celery, onion and peppers, then he showed us a trick to mincing the garlic using a bit of coarse salt and the side of the knife.
After the veggies were prepped, Jake poured about 2 tablespoons of canola oil in the pan, and added the onions. Those were allowed to caramelize in the pan for a few minutes, followed by the addition of the herbs, spices and salt. Jake tossed those around a bit, then added the peppers and celery and let those cook a little bit. While those were cooking, he held up the bag containing the 4 ounces of ground turkey for the recipe.
It didn’t look like much…lol…
When Jake put it in the pan, and it started to brown up, it actually seemed like there would be some in every bite. The recipe is for 6 people! It was actually starting to look like it would feed that many, too. The next step was to add the prepared barley, then the two cans of tomatoes and stir it up a bit more.
It smelled delicious!! At this point, Jake said it was ready and they started filling up bowls…
Just look at that! Packed with veggies, whole grains, spices! OMG YUM. Absolutely delicious. There was definitely plenty to go around. I think they estimated the cost of the meal to fit within their $10 Shopping Challenge… I can’t imagine it would be much more than that!
We spent the rest of the time discussing the class, the methods, and I asked Sara many questions about the shopping portion of the class, learning a lot about how they work with the class participants in their respective neighborhoods. They take the participants to a grocery store near them, and teach them the skills needed to shop at that particular store. I think this is fantastic since it’s something that is familiar to them, and they just have to learn how to transition from the unhealthy to the healthy.
There are also extensions to the program focusing on health issues such as Diabetes, helping participants work with the special diets they need in order to manage their blood sugar levels and even lose weight. Many of the volunteers expressed that previous participants had come back to tell them that they had lost weight from changing their eating habits as a result of taking this class! What a wonderful feeling!!
In addition to learning new recipes and nutrition, as well as how to better budget and practice safer food sanitation in their homes, participants also receive a bag of groceries containing the ingredients for each recipe taught in class so they can prepare them at home! This results in no financial risk to the participants, allowing them to try the new recipes without worrying about if they wasted money or not if their families don’t like it.
They also receive a lesson book containing over 100 recipes, each with a USDA-type food label, allowing for participants to use their newfound label-reading knowledge to ensure they understand HOW the recipes are healthy and what they contain. The books also have all the nutrition, food sanitation and safety knowledge covered in the course so they have it right at their fingertips when they get home and put it into practice.
Cooking Matters doesn’t only work with low-income adults, they have a broad range of courses for everyone. Cooking Matters for Kids covers children 6-8, Cooking Matters for Teens covers kids 12 and up, Cooking Matters for Young Parents covers teens and young adults who have children, and Cooking Matters for Families covers entire families with children under 5. Each class works specifically with that age group/family dynamic to teach them how to prepare healthy meals that meet their needs! Kids learn how to prepare their own healthy snacks and to make better food choices.
Overall, an absolutely amazing program. I cannot say enough good things! They are in desperate need of volunteers, especially those with culinary and/or nutrition experience!! Please tell everyone you know!
I plan to attend some other events with them, and I will definitely be writing more!