Helpings of Knowledge
Cooking Matters serves up hands-on education and resources to Puget Sound’s food deserts and low-income communities.
STORY BY NICOLE CAPOZZIELLO
“We want to make healthy food more accessible by breaking it down into simple concepts that you can take home to your kitchen,” says Cooking Matters Program Coordinator Nicole Dufva
“What ingredients do you need to make chicken soup?” asks Health Educator Sarah Detzer at a Monday night Cooking Matters for Families class. “Chicken!” yells 10-year-old Juan. Attempting to show him up, his younger brother, Joshua, not missing a beat, bursts out, “Soup!”
The class, a second ago intently focusing on the nutrition lesson, eases into comfortable laughter. It is week four of a six-week cooking course at Sea Mar Community Health Clinic in White Center, one of about 50 classes per year that nonprofit Cooking Matters puts on in the Seattle area. With five families and a majority of kids in the classroom, hardly any week is “typical.”
Cooking Matters (CM) is a part of Solid Ground in Wallingford, bringing cooking classes to low-income communities throughout Puget Sound since 1994. Solid Ground’s mission “to end poverty and undo racism and other oppressions that are root causes of poverty” is one easily amplified by CM.
“The people we serve already have so many barriers,” says Nicole Dufva, CM program coordinator. “We’re focused on meeting participants where they are.”
Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters, a national organization, was founded in 1993 out of a desire to provide food and resources in low-income communities, which often exist in “food deserts.” Residents in these areas have little access to grocery stores (often just convenience stores) and even less to nutrition education.
In many of these communities, food banks help fill the void. But what good is a can of lima beans or a bag of green, leafy bok choy if you don’t know what to do with it? It’s part of a problem all too real for low-income people across our country — and one that transcends geography, rural versus urban populations, ethnic backgrounds, and family structures.
“What Cooking Matters does, and does well, is focus on the accessibility of healthy food,” says Nicole, who at the outset of classes often hears participants express that eating healthily is expensive or not for them.
People sign up for the six-week classes, bring only themselves, and leave each class with recipes and a bag of groceries. Upon completion, they’re awarded a CM cookbook and a certificate.
During each class, participants make two recipes — the week I visit, it is a fall kale salad and pizza — and partake in a short nutrition lesson, which focuses on topics such as meal planning, whole grains, serving sizes on packaging, deciphering food labels, or eating balanced meals.
“What’s one of the benefits of everyone taking part in meal planning?” asks Sarah.
“They’ll eat it!” a few parents assert in unison.
“He’s helping me cook more at home,” says participant Roxanne, glancing at her nine-year-old son Alex, while she slices pears for the fall salad. Across the room, Alex wields a chef knife, ribboning kale with determination. “And he’s reading nutrition labels more. I usually pack him Top Ramen in a thermos for lunch once a week, and last week he said, ‘Mom! Have you looked at this? There’s so much sodium!’” She laughs, in awe.
“What does it mean to eat, shop, and cook healthy?” is one of the central questions posed by the course, which includes a grocery store trip in week five so that participants can apply their skills. “There’s no pressure to start making changes now, no expectation that participants be doing this and doing it right away,” says Nicole.
In Seattle, CM puts on Cooking Matters classes for adults, teens, kids, and families. In 2014, they served 526 people in 49 classes, staffed by 90 volunteers contributing 2,300 volunteer hours. Sixty-one percent of CM participants receive at least one form of federal food assistance.
CM partners with 68 community organizations, from Neighborcare Health, Seattle’s largest provider of primary medical and dental care for low-income and uninsured people, to Apple Corps, which “fights the root causes of obesity, malnutrition, and hunger in underserved communities” by bringing nutrition education to Title 1 schools. Just this year, CM expanded to Olympia and Bellingham.
On the horizon? “Partnering with more organizations,” says Erika Deianni, Solid Ground’s nutrition education manager, and setting up nutrition education training so that more classes can be led by people in their own communities.
“CM allows for communities to come together and learn nutritional value that is relevant,” Erika says. A class specifically tailored for diabetics or pre-diabetics is just one of many examples where participants with specific needs get connected to resources and a nurturing place to practice new skills.
A CM staff person is present at most classes, toting an array of cooking supplies and groceries. Volunteers, who fill the roles of chef, nutritionist, and class assistant, largely run the classes.
Volunteer chef Geanina heard about the classes while completing community health volunteer hours for nursing school. “I’m more open to variety and making meals without meat,” she says of how the class has impacted her cooking. She hurries off to commence pizza-making. “It’s always chaotic,” she laughs, as a stampede of kids ran by to wash their hands.
Kids and parents work side by side to prepare pizza toppings, chopping mushrooms and peppers. At one station, participants add spices to the tomato sauce. Later, they gather around a large gas hotplate, one of the many tools provided by CM, to sauté the veggies.
“What’s your favorite thing you’ve made so far?” I ask. “Pizza,” Joshua says, without hesitation, eyes following the little English muffin pizzas as they got carried off to the oven.
The program charts changes of all sizes made by class participants. At the end of a course, 56% report eating more vegetables and 51% report that the course improved their cooking-skills confidence. However, the biggest impacts come from the relationships forged.
“At the end of each series, there’s a story that keeps me going,” says CM Program Coordinator Sandra Williams. She recalls a Cooking Matters for Adults class in which she watched a woman open up, week by week, transforming from a non-participant to a confident one, eager to cook and try new things. Helping participants cultivate openness and giving them the confidence to improvise — to embellish recipes based on the season, personal preference, or the ingredients on hand — are other aspirations of the course. “She said her family was asking at home, ‘Who are you?’”
Like many Americans, class participants often come in having made food choices driven first and foremost by convenience. “It was a lot of fast food,” says Roxanne when asked about what they ate before taking the class.
But her eyes light up when she talks about the baked squash she made a couple of weeks ago, inspired by a recipe from class. “We added pecans and apples — it was good.”
To learn more about Cooking Matters or to volunteer in your community, visit solid-ground.org and cookingmatters.org.
Nicole Capozziello is a freelance writer and tour guide at Theo Chocolate.