Cooking and the community: It matters

DETROIT — Just because the “students” write about food for a living or a hobby didn’t mean their instructor acted like they knew anything.

“What is healthy eating?” began the class discussion.

“How many of your plates look like that?” the students were asked while viewing a diagram of healthy portions of grains, protein, vegetables, fruit and dairy.

“Does anybody have any questions about food labels?”

So went the demonstration of a “Cooking Matters” class put on recently for about 15 metro Detroit food bloggers at Gleaners Community Food Bank, the local non-profit agency that operates the national community cooking and nutritional awareness program that’s part of the “Share Our Strength” organization.

Part public relations, part education and part call for volunteers, the special Cooking Matters session was part of a series the staff is hosting for writers this summer. It’s partly to raise awareness about the program but also to help recruit volunteers. There is a waiting list of about 60 sites that want to hold the six-session classes, and there aren’t enough Cooking Matters staff to conduct them. Volunteers are essential to do the grocery shopping, help set up the classrooms and assist students and staff instructors during class.

“Every time I teach a class, I learn,” said Barb Hughes, a private chef who volunteers with the program.

At the recent mock class, the bloggers got a taste – literally – of what Cooking Matters classes are like for the roughly 1,400 graduates of the 132 classes in southeast Michigan last year. This year the program has expanded to 33 counties throughout the state.

“We’re growing like crazy,” says Sarah Mills, manager of the Cooking Matters program at Gleaners.

In the classes, staff and volunteer instructors – chefs and nutritionists – lead short discussions and lectures about food aimed at education families about nutrition, economical shopping and healthy cooking techniques. Each two-hour class includes making a recipe that will feed four people for less than $10. Participants are sent home with the ingredients for the dish so that they don’t have to gamble their limited food budgets on their families liking the food.

“We’re trying to distribute more fresh food and more nutritious food,” Mills says. “But what if the families that are receiving them don’t know what to do with them, don’t know how to cook eggplant, for example.”

Classes also build a sense of “community” in them. Students each chop a different ingredient and then put them in a large, communal bowl, for example. And when the final dish is ready, everyone gets a taste.

The mock class began with the same general food discussion used in the real Cooking Matters segments. Definitions of healthy eating and debunking food myths are part of the agenda.

“A lot of people think that eating healthy is expensive,” said Vani Schikian, a Cooking Matters coordinator at Gleaners. “But greens are super cheap compared to meat.”

Students review food labels and determine the relative nutrition of different products, also noting the sodium content and the ingredients in them. Prepping for the cooking segment involves proper hand washing technique – 20 seconds with soap under running water with plenty of friction and getting the backs of hands – how to hold a knife, cleaning the tops of cans and other tips to avoid spreading germs through food.

Classes also build a sense of “community” in them. Students each chop a different ingredient and then put them in a large, communal bowl, for example. And when the final dish is ready, everyone gets a taste.

“We talk about what you would change on it,” said Jake Williams, a Cooking Matters coordinator at Gleaners. “It’s a good way for everyone to take a bite, take a minute, analyze what they like, what they don’t like and they can ask questions about how they could change it.”

He suggests changing herbs, adding pepper or including additional vegetables in the jambalaya the bloggers made.

Several of the bloggers plan to write about their experience and volunteer. They’ll judge a teen cooking contest in Pontiac in August.

For Stephanie Zielinski, who writes www.thecookieadaychallenge.com, the class was a good way to get thinking about healthy alternatives for her project: literally baking a different cookie each day. “I want to debunk the myth that cookies can’t be healthy,” she said.

For Megan Dekok, who authors www.takeamegabite.com, the class was intriguing. “I wanted to see what it was all about,” she said. “As a blogger, it’s fun to see that there are different things like this out there.”

If you're interested in cooking, check out Cooking Matters' blog or facebook!

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