The adage goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
There’s something to be said about teaching a man, woman, and even a child, the power to cook. And I’m talking about really cooking—reheating frozen meals absolutely doesn’t count! The positive effects of instilling a healthy diet in young children have been proven time and time again. Many studies show that eating and preparing healthy meals early in life can instill a lifetime of positive eating habits that drastically reduces the risk of diet-related diseases like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer.
Enter Cooking Matters, a program by the nationally recognized Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, which aims to give families the tools they need to stretch food budgets and make regular, healthy meals. Cooking Matters empowers those who struggle with food insecurity by developing a series of programs that shows families how to stretch food dollars into healthy, affordable and delicious meals.
Liz Kohn is the Colorado Development Manager for Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters Colorado program, which currently serves 55 out of 64 counties within the state of Colorado. Cooking Matters Colorado has reached over 100,000 families through experiential education programs, tours and educational events. I’m shocked to learn that in the state of Colorado alone nearly 1 in 5 kids go hungry, and that number typically worsens in the summer when schools are out.
Cooking Matters Colorado operates regular 6-week courses throughout the year, partnering with local organizations like the University of Denver, Mercy Housing, schools and most recently, childcare providers, to target families and individuals in need. Why only 6 weeks? In a study focused on No Kid Hungry’s Cooking Matters program conducted by an independent evaluation firm, 6 weeks was all it took to make a significant difference in people’s lives; families reported “shopping smarter, eating healthier, and preparing more meals at home even six months after completing the course.”
I decided to check out the program by attending a Cooking Matters Colorado class at Mercy Housing in Denver with Kohn. Kohn tells me that their average class size is only around 10-12 students, and by keeping them small they can keep classes with a more “learner-centered approach.” It is week 2 for a class of senior residents who are learning how to shop and create meals that are around $1.40 or less per serving. This particular 6-week program is taught by Program Coordinator Elena Rees, who has a Master’s of Science in Nutrition, served as an AmeriCorps Program Coordinator and has recently joined the No Kid Hungry Impact Council.
Aided by volunteers and a nutritionist, Rees starts the class with a recap of the previous week’s lesson and asks the group, “Why are we here?”
“To learn how to make affordable, healthy meals and learn the proper way to cook,” says one of the participants eagerly.
Rees then asks if anyone tried making the apple salad again, using the ingredients sent home in their new tote bags. Students who attend Cooking Matters Colorado classes receive a tote bag filled with the ingredients from that week’s lesson. “It gives students the opportunity to practice what they’ve learned at home,” Kohn says, “That way they become more empowered and comfortable to cook these meals in their own kitchen.” Cooking Matters Colorado relies on donations and community partners to help with the cost of these ingredients, because ultimately the organization wants to keep these classes and materials free for the participants who already struggle with food insecurity.
This week’s class, I learn, will be focused on fruits, vegetables and grains. Students will be prepping and cooking Black Bean and Vegetable Quesadillas, which boast high amounts of fiber and protein. Also on the docket: a collection of party dips and spreads like a Fruit Yogurt Dip. Handouts featuring the day’s recipes are distributed to the participants. The recipes, I learn, are sourced from local Cooking Matters Colorado instructors in addition to the vast database of recipes collected by No Kid Hungry. Not only must the recipes adhere to a strict $10 a day budget, but they must also follow USDA Federal Nutrition guidelines to meet the recommended “MyPlate” servings of grains, dairy, vegetables and more of a healthy diet. After a quick introduction and lesson plan, students get to work on various tasks, from chopping vegetables to shredding cheese. Everyone works together, and Cooking Matters Colorado volunteers assist every step of the way to explain the why behind each step.
At the end of a 6-week program, participants attend a graduation ceremony complete with certificates and speeches. Many dress up for the occasion, with Kohn recounting one finely-dressed participant who explained, “I’ve never graduated from something before.” These ceremonies serve as a touching reminder about how the program empowers individuals in more ways than just cooking.
In addition to the cooking program, Cooking Matters Colorado also offers interactive grocery store tours. These hands-on tours show families how to compare foods for cost, such as knowing how to read the difference between unit versus product price. Families also learn how to make easy, healthy swaps on a limited budget; for example, have you considered how much sodium you can eliminate from your diet by choosing “No Salt Added” beans?
Kohn works with industry partners on a variety of events throughout the year to raise awareness for Cooking Matters Colorado programs and the No Kid Hungry Colorado campaign, and communicate monetary appeals. Funds raised at events like EDGE Out Childhood Hunger (occurring Thursday, February 16th at the Four Seasons Hotel in Denver) directly benefits Cooking Matters Colorado programming. Their signature event, Chefs Up Front, will take place on Sunday, April 30th at the Colorado Convention Center. Interested in joining the one of 600+ volunteers who commit their time to Cooking Matters Colorado programs? Visit the website to learn more.