Cooking and the community: It matters, part 2

DETROIT — When I wrote about Cooking Matters a while back, I was impressed by the national program that’s been in Detroit for years: an effort to teach kids and adults how to cook, shop and eat healthy, with economical and flavorful foods.

Who can’t benefit from a little more of that kind of knowledge?

The Cooking Matters program, housed locally at Gleaners Community Food Bank, is part of the national Share Our Strengths nonprofit and offers six-week, two-hour-a-week classes. Chefs and nutritionists — many volunteer — teach food safety, nutrition, cooking techniques and shopping tips for finding the healthiest, most cost-efficient foods.

Gleaners LogoMichigan has an appetite for Cooking Matters’ work: in 2011, 132 courses hosted 1,678 participants and 2012 is on target for even more.

With demand for the variety of Cooking Matters classes — designed for adults, children, teens, diabetics and child care professionals — comes demand for volunteers. So to find some, the Detroit-based staff invited a group of food bloggers in for a mock class. We learned how the program is set up, how class lessons are presented with a combination of discussion, cooking and eating, and Cooking Matters’ need for local volunteers.

Some of the experiences are reported here.

And then we got invited to be “celebrity judges” at various classes that were concluding. My ego — and my stomach — were in!

My first judging was for a group of kids in Pontiac who had a Cooking Matters class put together by Catholic Social Services. Having competed the previous five weeks, they were charged with creating a menu that included fruit, vegetables, whole grains, protein and dairy that also replicated — sort of — their favorite fast food meal.

I showed up to volunteer judge with representatives of www.thehungrydudes.com website too.

And what charitable work we did, starting with consuming flavorful veggie omelets, continuing to roasted vegetable pizza with a spinach-strawberry salad and concluding with black bean burgers with sweet potato fries. All were accompanied by sweet but healthy fruit-based drinks and smoothies.

Never mind the relative agony of having to pick a winner, I could volunteer like this all the time.

So I offered again. This time I met a group of kids in Detroit who worked in the Gleaners kitchen to make pasta with homemade tomato sauce and turkey meatballs, salads and a chicken stir-fry with vegetables and rice. One of the teams made fresh lemonade. When was the last time I had that?

It was another tough volunteer effort but I suffered through.

Not only did I get lunch, but it was inspiring to see a group of kids working as a team, struggling to cook a new recipe and then be proud when it turned out well.

FoodFrom there, the original group of food bloggers took part in the “Shopping Matters” portion of another mock class. Accompanied by Jake Williams, one of the local Cooking Matters coordinators and a trained chef, we visited a grocery store where we learned more about reading food labels, finding deals and comparing unit price.

Then Dorothy Hernandez, another Cooking Matters coordinator, handed us $10 gift cards and we were off to complete the challenge: create a meal for four, not exceeding that spending limit, that included the five food groups.

Here’s blogger David Moss’s take on the experience.

Into my shopping bag went a box of multi-grain rotini, a bag of dried chick peas, a bunch of spinach, a few Roma tomatoes and some plain, low-fat yogurt.

The total? $9.50

I admit to throwing in half a minced onion when I sautéed up half the bag of cooked chick peas in some olive oil with the chopped tomatoes and spinach.  I also used some basil from my garden to garnish the dish and add a punch of flavor.

I’m eating the last of four servings of it as I’m typing this. The yogurt, added to the finished bowl, adds a creaminess without the fat, which makes it a healthy version of an Alfredo, in my opinion.

So as I scarf it down, I’m writing about how this recipe came to be. I’m also looking forward to my first real volunteer gig as a classroom assistant with one of the classes. We start Thursday.

Jambalaya and some good old-fashioned community service are on the menu.


Cooking Matters is in search of volunteers! To sign up, check out their website.

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