Cooking Matters’ diabetes classes meet an increasing need

Everyone lives with diabetes these days. Of course, the 25.8 million Americans who are currently diagnosed with it experience the brunt of the disease. But everyone lives with it. Whether you’re genetically predisposed to it, have high blood pressure or even just watch what you eat, it’s all around you.

Choose My Plate is the new Food Pyramid

Choose My Plate is the new Food Pyramid

In a food system where the cheaper, highly concentrated high fructose corn syrup regularly replaces real sugar and enriched wheat-packed processed foods dominate the affordable grocery market, the influx of people living on low incomes with diabetes is no mere coincidence. So, in a society with disparities in access to healthy food options, we all must think before we eat and make the right choices, whether it’s to prevent diabetes, maintain our health, or provide for a diabetic loved one.

You’ve probably heard this mantra before: Keep a healthy weight, make smart food choices and be active every day. It’s pretty easy to say. But in communities with limited access to affordable fresh produce, the actual doing of those things is incredibly difficult. That is why Cooking Matters, a program of Solid Ground in partnership with Share Our Strength, has started to offer diabetes classes. The series is made up of six weekly classes and focuses on diabetes prevention and management through healthy choices about food and physical activity.

While this disease becomes more commonplace, it can still be a difficult thing to talk about, especially for those living on low incomes. Since access to healthy food is a tough issue in the first place, openly discussing the physical and emotional tolls that diabetics endure can be challenging. This type of discussion is encouraged in Week 1, where the information provided is also meant to complement the current curriculum taught in Cooking Matters for Adults classes.

This first series for Cooking Matters Seattle was held at the Sea Mar Community Health Center in Burien, a region in King County that typically sees a lot of families and individuals living on low incomes from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds.

“[Cultural diets] do play a big role in how we structure the class,” says Sandra Williams, Cooking Matters Program Coordinator at Solid Ground. “We try as best as we can to diversify a recipe. At the beginning of the series (Week 1), we will ask participants, ‘What are some things that you’d like to learn in class?’ ” she says, explaining that healthy versions of traditional recipes or ingredient substitutions can be planned out over the course of the class series. “Oftentimes people are vegetarian or have different beliefs. So if they’re Kosher, we make sure to note that and take that into account.”

As the first local Cooking Matters class focusing on diabetes-centric nutrition, Sandra says that attendance was at capacity. Having access to knowledgeable specialists may have been a factor. “In the diabetes class, we do require that the nutritionist is a registered dietician,” Sandra says. “Unlike our other adult, family and teen classes where we require volunteers to have some background in nutrition and cooking, but not a degree.”

If the goal is to expand these diabetes-focused classes to more regions, more often, then we’re on our way. Another series is due in the fall of 2014. But new class series are heavily dependent on word of mouth from previous program participants, volunteers and donors. “We teach healthy cooking, nutrition and how to prevent diseases,” says Sandra. “I feel like people gain a lot from the class, and yet we don’t have enough resources to offer the curriculum [more frequently].”

Please click here if you’d like to learn more about participating in, volunteering for or coordinating a Cooking Matters class. Can’t wait until fall? ChooseMyPlate.gov is a useful, free tool you can use to put together nutritious, preventative meals yourself.

Cooking Matters receives local in-kind donations from Charlie’s Produce and Whole Foods Market.

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Cooking Matters: A recipe for changing lives

Cooking Matter class at Brettler Family Place

At the end of their second class, participants and volunteers line up to share the dinner they’ve just prepared together.

There aren’t many activities that can compete with sharing a home-cooked meal with family, neighbors and friends. That is until you combine it with lessons that put a smile on your child’s face and give you a repertoire of resources and know-how to keep your family healthy.

Cooking Matters is a Solid Ground program offering six-week classes designed to teach healthy habits, mindful shopping, food competence and meal planning – all with a dash of fun.

At the start of one recent class for Brettler Family Place residents, two families queued up outside the community kitchen bathroom to wash their hands while volunteers unpacked ingredients on the chef’s table. After washing their hands, the father and mother of one family automatically grabbed a can of beans and began reading the label and asking questions. This was only their second class, but they were already forming healthy habits.

Describing the healthy lifestyle changes Cooking Matters promotes, Program Supervisor Raquel DeHoyos explained, “It’s like brushing your teeth. You just have to make a habit out of it. Our format is pretty basic. We just want to give everyone the same foundation – some basics and go-tos – if you’re looking to incorporate healthy eating habits.”

Solid Ground partners with Share Our Strength, a national organization working to end childhood hunger, which provides curricula, supplies and staff training for the program – along with tasty recipes. The simple recipes prepared during this class were nutritious, quick and packed a punch of flavor. The families and volunteers unanimously voted the appetizer – a spicy white bean dip served with pita slices – as the new football game snack favorite.

One rule of the class requires each participant to taste everything once to expand food choices and sharpen palates. The families played a blind taste test game with this rule in mind. While the parents were pleasantly surprised by jicama, the kids enjoyed pomegranate and grapefruit the most – sometimes sneaking to the bowls on the back table to grab more. Volunteers provided tips on how to incorporate their favorite items in future meals and suggested alternatives if those ingredients weren’t available.

Cooking Matters is funded through SNAP Ed and an annual fundraiser called Chefs Night Out. Program sponsors, Whole Foods Market and Charlie’s Produce, donate all the food for the program, so families living on a limited budget have at least one fallback meal for the week. The families were given a helping of each selection from the taste game, as well as all the ingredients for the meal they prepared for dinner to experiment with at home. Not only do families get to practice cooking the recipes, but they have the opportunity to share quality time cooking and eating as a family at home.

“It’s so easy for people to connect over food and cooking,” Raquel affirmed. At the end of class, when everyone sat down to eat the meal they had prepared together, there was a sense of shared accomplishment – delight evident on everyone’s smiling faces. The class is a social event as much as a learning opportunity – a chance to escape from the stresses of life.

Raquel recalls a past participant’s gratitude for the stability the class provided in her hectic life. “A mother of two kids experiencing homelessness took who knows how many buses to get to class each week. She said that every other aspect of her life was so discombobulated, and this class was the only thing that kept them together.

“They needed something routine and structured,” Raquel explained, “because they didn’t have that in the rest of their lives. This mother was able to go to class with her children, which was fun and an escape from worries. At the same time she looked forward to having at least one meal at home with her family. And now she can’t keep her youngest away from vegetables. She has to constantly watch him at the farmers market because he is always trying to eat the veggies. That’s a true testament to what this class can do,” Raquel laughed.

In 2013, Cooking Matters served a total of 740 participants in 58 sessions. This year – Cooking Matters’ 20th anniversary – the program is reaching toward a goal of 65 six-week sessions, and expansion statewide through satellite partners.

Raquel believes in the positive influence these classes have on the lives of those living on low or middle incomes. “For me, this program is about much more than cooking. This program can change a person’s life forever. Even if you’re only working with these people for six weeks, they take it with them, and they will continue to cook. They may not take everything, but they will take what works for them.”

Look for the Cooking Matters app available on iTunes and Google Play. If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information, please contact Cooking Matters staff at 206.694.6846 or at cooking@solid-ground.org

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Anti-hunger crusader Billy Shore visits Solid Ground

SOS Executive Director Billy Shore chats with Claire Leamy, who directs the Cooking Matters program for Solid Ground

National anti-hunger leader Billy Shore just stopped by the Solid Ground offices to meet a few of our own anti-hunger crusaders and share some of his wisdom from 25 years of working to feed America. Shore is founder and executive director of the national organization Share Our Strength, which has partnered with Solid Ground programs for 17 years, including Cooking Matters (formerly Operation Frontline), Food Security for Children and others. Shore is in Seattle for an appearance tonight at Town Hall promoting his new book, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, about the quest to defeat malaria.

While hunger continues to grow (Seattle food banks served 75,000 unduplicated families this year, up 10% from the year before, and the third straight year of increases of 10% or higher!), Shore is optimistic: “the issue is not that we do not have solutions to these very difficult problems,” he said, the issue is making the solutions “affordable, sustainable and scalable.”

In addition to creating model programs and funding mechanisms that have been replicated in communities throughout the country, Shore is a vigorous advocate for utilizing the resources available through the federal government.

“I am hopeful by nature,” he said, “but this particular point in our nation’s history tests that a lot. One of the advantages that we have is that we are involved with a lot of programs that work.” While there is plenty of evidence of waste and fraud in government programs, the food programs Shore advocates for “are effective, change people’s lives and return (resources) back to the economy.” Shore specifically mentioned the school Summer Meals and School Breakfast programs, which have received bi-partisan support and funding from the federal government, but which states have not fully exploited. Money remains available to access these programs. “Even if the programs are cut somewhat, we are still far from the ceiling,” Shore said.

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