This past Wednesday and Thursday, I was in Dallas for a Cooking Matters Blogger Boot Camp. It was eye opening for me. I know that hunger is a problem, especially childhood hunger. There was a very high proportion of children at the preschol the wee ones attended in poverty and who ate nothing until they walked in the doors of the school and little if anything after they left. But the scope of it? And some of the solutions that are out there? I had no idea.
We are lucky. We are food secure. I never worry about where our next meal is coming from. Even if we had significantly less money for food than what we do now, we'd still be ok. Not only do I have the funds to buy what I want (my husband brought home sushi for lunch), but I budget for my food and know how to stretch my dollar. I can and do buy mostly whole foods and cook from scratch and am very comfortable with it.
I'm realizing more and more that I'm in the minority with this.
While at the boot camp with other bloggers from around the country, we learned about many of the statistics and some of the solutions. ConAgra Foods Foundation has partnered with Share Our Strength in the goal of ending childhood hunger with Cooking Matters as one solution.
Cooking Matters is a national program operated through food banks in 22 states and DC that teaches families at risk of hunger how to prepare healthy and affordable meals. The classes are generally offered for six weeks for two hours per session where students are taught how to cook in a hands on setting. Everyone has to cook, from cutting an onion to cleaning up to checking the pasta to see if it's done. The recipes are all very accessible and focus on available foods that are relatively inexpensive from banana quesadillas for breakfast to salmon pasta bake (canned salmon) to pumpkin muffins.
Once the cooking is done, participants eat their meals and then are sent home with the ingredients to recreate it in their own kitchens. Something I'd never thought about before? The participants don't have the money to purchase the ingredients for foods that their families may not eat, so unless they are given the ingredients or money for the ingredients they are unlikely to try the recipes again because they can't afford for food to go to waste. Let's just say that was eye opening for me.
In addition to teaching about cooking, the Cooking Matters classes also has a trek to a local grocery store. There students are taught how to read labels to find the most healthful foods (cottage cheese is out - high in sodium and low in calcium, especially compared to yogurt!). There is also a focus on understanding unit pricing, how to tell when fruits and veggies are ripe, and how to find foods that are both inexpensive and healthful in general. Surprises to me? Grated cheese is actually cheaper than a block of cheese. Go fig!
We participated in these activities, as well, and it was - as always - amazing for me to see the difference in price for purchasing whole foods (such as whole carrots v baby carrots, bagged rice v microwaveable, ground beef v premade patties, 32 oz of yogurt v kid flavored yogurt). When the Cooking Matters experts put together two identical carts - less the whole foods v convenience foods difference - the whole foods cart cost $24.26, while the convenience cart cost $43.54 for the same amount of food.
If you don't know how to cook or are comfortable putting together meals, think about what that means for your budget. Amazing. That's one of the reasons that I really love this program. This isn't a Band-Aid being placed on the problem of hunger. This is a longer term solution that also teaches a life skill - one that will hopefully also bring families closer together as they help each other cook and shop. And the goal of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign? Ending childhood hunger by 2015. That's a huge goal.
As part of our education, we also toured the North Texas Food Pantry and learned so much about what they do. The NTFB supplies food for food pantries within its region that come on set schedules to pick up food for their pantries. That's in addition to the people they serve. Food banks used to just have salvaged food - dented cans, food near its expiration date, and the like. Now, the food bank receives about 30% of its budget from the federal government, as well as from food and monetary donations from individuals and organizations.
Interestingly, food banks can do way more with your money than with the cans and boxes you provide. Due to their huge bulk buying power, they can actually purchase food for three meals for a single dollar. It used to be four or more meals, but with the increasing complexity of their programs (and inflation in food costs), that has shrunk a little.
And the new programs? They are things like sending home backpacks for the weekends and during the summer for children shows effects of hunger in schools. Like those children in the wee ones' preschool, these kids eat little or nothing at home. Once identified, these students receive a bag filled with shelf stable, relatively nutritious food that will tide them over when they aren't receiving breakfast and lunch via the free and reduced lunch programs. Each of those bags costs $1.10.
Surprisingly, the food bank in Texas - and all food banks and pantries - rely on volunteers to accomplish their goals. The NTFB has 22,000 volunteers each year to sort food, get things packed, and the like. I can't even imagine, but it makes sense since now the food pantry is more than just basic canned food. They now provide produce, meats, refrigerated items, and more. It's a much more well-rounded foods that are provided, which is another great benefit provided by monetary donations.
Share Our Strength and Cooking Matters doesn't just teach adults. If kids never learn about food, it's hard to break the cycle of not cooking and not knowing about nutrition (or being comfortable eating different foods). We participated in a service project at a local after school program where we helped the kids cook vegetable and bean filled quesadillas!
Much like the adult class, the kids do all the work with the cooking, but they also have activities to do like games about nutrition (identifying various fruits and vegetables and categorizing them) having to do with the foods they just cooked and ate. This time, there was also a word find for all sorts of foods - one of the wee ones' favorite activities. The kids were amazing and so sweet. We had Angel helping us at the flipping station, and he was so proud of his prowess with making the quesadillas.
After our adventure learning about Cooking Matters and participating in the service project, we headed out to Stephen Pyles, a fantastic restaurant in Dallas. The chef/owner is a huge supporter of the program, and we were treated to an amazing meal beginning with the fact that a paneled window opened to show us the chef and kitchen. So cool.
The food was divine. I was almost full after my crab tart appetizer (which I didn't finish), but I managed to eat about half my poblano asiago soup but only a little of my halibut and "risotto" - the food was all so rich! For dessert, I had the most gorgeous take on coffee and donuts, but of course I could barely eat a bite. The food was excellent, and while there, we discovered that $1,000 had been donated to each of our local food banks by the ConAgra Foods Foundation and $10,000 to the North Texas Food Bank. Awesomeness all around!
(No the Caesar Salad wasn't mine, but the presentation was too gorgeous to not share!)
More to come on Thursday's lessons... I need to head to bed, and there's so much yet to share and process. But for you? Go - get involved. You can make a difference, and so many people need the little we can give!
At the very least, join almost 22,000 people and go sign the pledge to help end childhood hunger by 2015. Just provide your email and zip - no big signups or sharing of information. From there, you'll see all sorts of different actions you can take from getting involved in your community to advocating in government to taking action online and more.
In the interest of full disclosure, ConAgra Foods Foundation paid for my travel and accomodations for the bloggy boot camp. I also received compensation for attending the event, but all opinions expressed are my own.