Church hosts class on cooking, nutrition

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Families at risk of facing food insecurity have a new option for fighting hunger in their own households. Cooking Matters has arrived.

The six-week course—a program of the national non-profit Share Our Strength—provides education on nutrition and cooking techniques for all ages. The program also includes Shopping Matters, a hands-on experience with shopping for low-cost ingredients that offer high nutritional value.

In June, First United Methodist Church in Little Rock hosted the first central Arkansas-area training. “We’re looking for people who want to be engaged in this around the state,” said church member Kathy Webb, who is also executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and a former restaurateur.

Participants practice their knife skills in a Cooking Matters demonstration class at First United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark. COURTESY PHOTO

The Alliance, an umbrella organization for the six Feeding America food banks and almost 300 pantries across Arkansas, is the state’s lead partner for Cooking Matters. While the course itself is new this year, it’s part of the Arkansas No Kid Hungry campaign launched in 2010 by the Alliance and Share Our Strength. Other partners include the Arkansas Department of Human Services, the governor’s office and the Department of Education.

And there’s a larger United Methodist connection, too: At a meeting earlier this year, the Arkansas Conference’s Hunger Task Force endorsed Cooking Matters as a program it believes can have a sustained positive impact in the battle against hunger.

“What we agreed to do that day was to help churches that are doing [community] gardening to continue that and take it forward, and then get engaged in Cooking Matters,” Ms. Webb said. “So you’ve already got this focus in your mind, and you’re thinking about nutrition and fresh food, then you add this as a component to it.”

Basics and benefits

Cooking Matters provides participants with a cookbook full of easy, low-cost, nutritious recipes. But it’s about far more than a cookbook.

“We teach basic knife skills, we teach food safety skills, there’s a big nutrition piece,” Ms. Webb says. Every class is staffed by a volunteer chef as well as a volunteer from a nutrition-related field.

Ms. Webb, a chef herself, will be leading some of the classes in Arkansas, which are participatory.

“It’s not like I stand up and cook a meal and tell you how to do it; we all stand there and we cook this meal together,” she said. “And then you get groceries and recipes to take home, and you cook it at home.”

She says that everything she has cooked lately has come from the Cooking Matters cookbook—at home, at a recent open house showcasing the new program and at the Alliance’s last board meeting.

“If we’re going to be rolling out this program, I think we need to know what the food tastes like,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that it was really good. And it was great.”

Kathy Webb

When the first Cooking Matters class hosted by the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank held its graduation in May, the director there told Ms. Webb that many of the participants were surprised to find they had lost weight during the six-week course.

“Not everybody has yet made that correlation between obesity and lack of good nutrition, because calories are cheap,” said Ms. Webb.

When they do make the connection, though, many families find that with proper nutrition comes better overall health: Illness decreases throughout the household, and children make fewer trips to the school nurse.

Ms. Webb shares a success story from the class that graduated recently from the Arkansas Foodbank’s offering of Cooking Matters: “As I was leaving the graduation, I overheard a woman talking to the nutrition volunteer. She showed her how her pants were being held up with a string, because they were too loose. She was very proud of herself, and said she was doing this for herself and her child. Her graduation from the class was a big deal for her family.”

Churches can help

Churches with full commercial kitchens already have an ideal education space for the program to use. In addition, a congregation might look into providing childcare and transportation to remove other common barriers that potential students may encounter.

A commercial kitchen isn’t necessary, though, for church members to get involved. Because the program is available in both English and Spanish, it often can require volunteers who are bilingual and willing to be trained for leadership.

To learn more about Cooking Matters and Shopping Matters, visit www.cookingmatters.org.

Ms. Forbus is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist, the newspaper of the Arkansas Conference.

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