Now we're cooking: Course shows families how to make affordable, healthy meals

Almost 370,000 families across the US have taken part in Cooking Matters' programs, which are part of the national No Kid Hungry campaign.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Alicia McCabe, Massachusetts director of Cooking Matters, demonstrates affordable, healthy cooking methods at an event in Somerville, Mass., on March 29, 2016.

A narrow table stretches before you, laid with rows of matching cutting boards, gleaming knives, and neatly wrapped aprons.

Heaps of fresh vegetables adorn the table’s end, enticing you, setting your imagination aflame with the strange smells and exotic flavors set to assault your senses over the next two hours.

So begins a class of Cooking Matters, a subdivision of the national No Kid Hungry campaign, whose aim is encapsulated by its name. The campaign’s approach is essentially two-pronged: education, championed by Cooking Matters, and access, which focuses on school breakfasts and summer meals.

“I think one of the most important things we help provide is dignity,” says Alicia McCabe, Massachusetts director of Cooking Matters. “Lots of the families we work with say that when you are lower income, and you have to rely on benefits from the government or other organizations, that can be challenging to dignity.”

And so Cooking Matters tries to show people how they can prepare tasty, healthy meals for their families using inexpensive ingredients.

“It’s one thing for me to say barley is a great thing for you to add into your diet,” Ms. McCabe says, “but it’s another thing for you to go to the grocery store, find it, and cook it in such a way as you and your 4-year-old will both enjoy to eat it.”

The flagship program of Cooking Matters is a six-week course, running for two hours each week, teaching basic, practical skills to about a dozen parents or families at a time.

It takes place in partnership with community centers or organizations that are already working with the local population, can provide familiar spaces for the classes, and can recommend families they think would most benefit.

Whereas some people think that to eat well, you have to brave the health foods aisle and pay three times the price of normal produce, Cooking Matters points out affordable options, explains Jamie Breden, a Massachusetts participant in the program.

When she learned of the program through her son’s school, Ms. Breden had recently been diagnosed with a disease that seemed to have unwelcome implications for her diet, and she was struggling to modify the way she fed herself and her family.

“Cooking Matters honestly saved me from this really tough spot in my life,” Breden says. “Food isn’t this battleground anymore. The program’s completely changed how our family is around food now.”

For those families unable to commit to two hours every week for a month and a half, there is a less intensive option of doing a grocery store tour, where some of the basic principles of smart shopping are laid out in a practical setting.

According to No Kid Hungry, almost 370,000 families nationwide have taken part in Cooking Matters' courses and tours.

But No Kid Hungry is more than just cooking know-how. The campaign, which is run by the nonprofit Share Our Strength, also works to get meals for children – no small feat considering that in 2015, more than half of public school students came from low-income families.

“We know, for example, when kids eat breakfast, they do better at school,” says Lucy Melcher, No Kid Hungry’s director of advocacy and government relations. “What we’ve learned through No Kid Hungry is that kids face a range of barriers to accessing meals.”

To help eliminate those barriers, No Kid Hungry works in partnership with the federal School Breakfast Program, as well as community groups and state agencies.

But it is perhaps the summer months that present the biggest challenge, and No Kid Hungry’s summer meal program aims to plug the gap. But the task is daunting.

“Summer months are the hungriest time for low-income families, some of whom spend $300 more a month on food,” says No Kid Hungry’s Tali Israeli. “Only 1 in 7 kids who are eating free or reduced-price school lunches are getting the summer meals they need.”

At its core, No Kid Hungry is trying to address poverty. But even though “poverty is a very complex issue, feeding children is not,” says Ms. Melcher. With the help that families are getting to provide good food for children, “what we find is that this helps us reduce the cycle of poverty.”

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