Since Oct. 5, cooking classes have been held virtually and offered to community members within Perry County, all aimed at educating attendees on how to cook and eat healthy while maintaining an affordable budget within the grocery store.
A partnership between land grant universities throughout the country, with this program specifically stemming from the Ohio State University Extension and working with parent company Share Our Strength, Cooking Matters has been held in the past in-person within a kitchen, but COVID’s impacts have forced it to transition to an entirely virtual program. However, that isn’t stopping attendees or organizers from getting together to cook and enjoy meals, even if it’s through a screen, according to Shawn Walker, a program assistant for SNAP-Ed.
“We are able to make boxes (of food for the classes) and then people come to the grocery store and pick up their box of food,” Walker said. “That works great virtually. In a regular Cooking Matters class, say I have ten participants, and we have ten bags ready when they walk out the door after the class with the exact same items we used to prepare the meal, to take home and prepare that meal to practice with their family.”
According to Shawn, community members are incredibly supportive in the program, and frequently offer donations. She even noted that one of the Perry County commissioners recently approached her about donating free beef from his farm to the program. This support only encourages the program to continue and expand even further.
The classes are two hours long, and last six consecutive weeks. The first hour of each class is a nutrition class, where attendees discuss the MyPlate eating program and go in-depth about realigning their mindset when it comes to eating. In the second hour, the class covers a variety of skills, ranging from cutting up a whole chicken to preparing simple turkey wraps. Then, the class sits down to eat the meal together and suggest how they’d change the meal or add to it in the future. In the class’ last lesson, they get together to do a grocery store show, and programmers teach attendees how to read labels, select things that are inexpensive and expand their radar when shopping for things that are both healthy and affordable.
“I’ve had a first hand look at generational poverty, children being food insecure, among many other things, so that is one of my top goals,” Walker said. “And obviously, you can’t go into school and teach a ten-year-old child how to cut up a chicken and prepare a meal, so we try to reach the parents… and teach them how to stretch their food dollars and shop and cook healthier.”
Walker explained that people tend to overlook produce like spaghetti squash, especially because most people don’t know what to do with it or how to cook with it. However, taking classes like Cooking Matters expands attendees’ knowledge on cooking and enables them to purchase items like these and improve the health of themselves and those they live with simultaneously.
“It’s really easy on Friday night when you’re tired to order a pizza and have a pizza delivered to the house,” Walker said. “But I show people how to make two or three meals, or even make a pizza in one of those two or three meals, at home, and for the same amount of getting takeout pizza delivered.”
Walker explained that she believes around 26% of children in Perry County are living below poverty levels, and that Cooking Matters is here to change statistics like that. Teaching people how to stretch their dollars and do so in a healthy way is key to the program.
“If I can teach a young mother to buy a squash or maybe get food from the food pantry and come in and cook something with it, then that’s a win-win,” Walker said. “I am not a culinary specialist. I am a normal person that started this job just because I wanted to see people in the country thrive and eat better.”