Community cooking classes teach nutrition, shopping on a budget

"Cooking Matters" is a six-week course that helps members of the community cook healthy, nutritious food on a budget.

At Alameda Point Collaborative , five children—some wearing paper chef hats—passed around a lumpy maroon-colored fruit.

“This one I haven’t even tried before,” said class assistant Caroline Chow. “What is it?”

“It looks like a Mr. Potato Head,” 7-year-old Nairobi Washington offered.

The fruit, a tuna pear, was one of nine fruits the children described and sampled. After tasting each fruit, the youngsters wrote whether they “loved” the fruit or would “try it again later.”

“Sometimes you don’t like things right now,” Chow told the children. “But you try again later and you love it.”  Across the room, their parents discussed the challenges of getting kids to eat vegetables, and the merits of fresh, canned and frozen fruits.

Cooking Matters, a program of free, six-week-long nutrition courses, teaches people in low-income Bay Area communities how to shop for and prepare healthy meals on a budget. The Alameda course earlier this month was aimed at families. Other courses for children, teens or adults are offered in Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, El Sobrante, Hayward, Pinole, San Francisco and East Palo Alto.

Running the largely volunteer instructional program is 18 Reasons, a nonprofit organization that offers private cooking classes in San Francisco and extends its nutritional programs into a range of community sites including hospitals, schools, clinics and centers for childcare and seniors.

“Each class has a very different vibe,” said Jessie Wesley, programs assistant at 18 Reasons. Instructors ask participants what they’d like to learn. Wesley taught one class at a cancer clinic where the participating women knew nutrition “like the back of their hands,” but wanted to learn to infuse it into their cooking.

“We only have six weeks, so we really try to make sure that we pack as much information as they want,” she said.

Alameda Point Collaborative operates 200 units of housing and services to 500 formerly homeless residents. Joniece Thomas, wellness support specialist at the collaborative, said case managers joined together to bring Cooking Matters there. “People generally come out and see what it’s about,” she said.

Elena Friegl said she came to learn to cook for her daughter who has occasional high blood pressure.

“I was trying to think of alternative, healthier ways for her to enjoy eating vegetables, eating fruits, eating the right stuff,” she said,  “instead of all the processed stuff that she’s normally used to.”  Friegl said her daughter has sampled recipes like zucchini quesadillas.

Hands-on cooking of healthy meals reinforces the nutritional lessons. While adults worked together to assemble a peanut butter noodle salad, Chow helped the children concoct a “Popeye smoothie” with spinach, bananas, orange juice, yogurt and agave.

At LifeLong Medical Care hospital in East Oakland, six women and two men met for their sixth week of Cooking Matters earlier that day. To celebrate the last class, participants brought homemade dishes for a potluck dinner.

Mike Matthews said his doctor suggested he take the class because his low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), the main carrier of harmful cholesterol in blood, were high. “She [my doctor] suggested I take this class for taking the bad fats out of my diet,” added the Castro Valley resident.

Kathryn Redic Spencer, of Oakland, also studying at her physician’s recommendation, learned to pay attention to food labels. “Now I read to see how much sugar is in it, how much sodium. Before I didn’t really care because all I knew was it tasted good,” she said with a laugh.

As for her old favorites, like sweet passion fruit juice, Redic Spencer said, “I still love it but I’m not doing it so often.”

At the end of every class, participants receive the recipes that they followed in class with a bag of ingredients they utilized that day, such as broccoli, carrots, onions and bok choy.

“I think it’s hard to try new things and step out of your comfort zone if you’re on a budget and you have to buy it. So it’s nice to have those things in a bag set,” Wesley said.

On the fifth week of the series, classes typically visit a grocery store where participants are given a challenge: $10 to buy ingredients for a meal to feed a family of four.

Vincent Figueroa said he took Cooking Matters to learn “different styles of cooking” to complement his own Puerto Rican recipes. The previous week he’d learned to make mango salsa, he said.

Another lesson: cooking with whole grains rather than his usual white rice. “I don’t have to cook white rice every day,” he said.

Sarah Nelson, executive director of 18 Reasons, said Cooking Matters is always looking for volunteers. The program needs about 45 volunteers a week for its 15 classes, or about 250 volunteers a year. Many volunteers are drawn from paying students at the 18 Reasons community cooking school in San Francisco.

“A lot of people who come to the paid classes love food and are looking to get more engaged in the community,” she said.

Oakland-based chef HuNia Bradley said she likes teaching Cooking Matters classes because they help empower the community and change children’s opinions of healthy food.

“We know that if we get them early, we can avoid a whole bunch of stuff that we have in our communities,” she said.

More information about volunteer opportunities with 18 Reasons is available online.

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