Monday, January 24, 2011

Blogger Event: Cooking Matters Part 2

Read Part 1 - the first day of my Cooking Matters Bloggy Boot Camp experience last week


On Thursday, we had a half day scheduled with the Cooking Matters program. Read the first part (link above) for more info on Cooking Matters in general. This was less informational and lecturing and more actual doing than the previous day.

Hunger 101 was our first activity. Each of us was assigned a new personality and details that are based on real people who have visited a specific food bank. Our goal was to take our circumstances and find a way to get food for ourselves through the money we have, using food stamps if necessary, shopping at the "store" provided, and visiting the food bank.

I became John Stevens, a 75 year old recent widower. My income has now declined to $1190 as I've lost my wife's social security benefits in addition to her companionship. We used to get by just fine, but now... not so much. I now also have to pay $125 per month towards her funeral expenses in addition to my mortgage, taxes, health insurance, and the like. Once I pay those expenses, I have a total of $57 per month for food.

$57 per month. (I've spent more than that on a meal for myself more than once. Talk about a reality check.)

Can you imagine what $57 per month looks like? That's just under $2 per day. My first step was to visit the food stamp office to pick up an application to see if I qualified - I was worried that I wouldn't since my income falls in the 130-185% of the poverty level. Wow, was that an experience. The employee was beyond not helpful - the point where I was given a Spanish application "by mistake." By the time I got back to the front of the line, all the English applications were gone.

Hoping that French translated to Spanish to come degree, I began filling out my massively huge over ten page application. In Spanish. It asked for everything from my name and personal information to account numbers for my electric utilities and how much I owed on my home. The level of complexity was stunning. I never did finish filling it out, and I can understand why so many states have such a low rate of people who would qualify actually receiving food stamps (38% in Texas, fortunately much higher at 83% in Illinois).

And food stamps? There have been studies showing that for each dollar put into food stamps, $1.30 goes back into the local economy because of grocery stores that need to employ workers and trickling down from there. And more people receiving food stamps means that more people who don't qualify for food stamps can receive food from food pantries and the like.

After giving up on my food stamp application, I headed to the food pantry, hoping that they might be able to help me out with the application. The volunteer there gave me a blank look when I asked if she could help with it; she wasn't an expert unfortunately, nor did she speak Spanish. I was one of the lucky ones, however. Because food banks are often funded by government entities, there can be strict regulations about where people live in order to receive benefits. I lived in the right town. And somehow, my income qualified me for food from the pantry. Miraculously. But how many people wouldn't have tried, thinking they didn't qualify? The food bank gave me tons of food from eggs to jam to tuna and more.

With that, I headed to the store to spend my $2 to round out my eating. I was able to purchase a loaf of bread, which left me with $1. I had something to eat with my eggs and my tuna and my peanut butter and jam. The last dollar was tricky. As with many stores in areas with a high concentration of poverty, there wasn't a ton of choices and many items were simply sold out. I finally ended up with 2 candy bars for that $1 figuring that they were calories that I could split up over the course of the week and do ok.

I was a lucky one. I ended up with food to eat - thanks primarily to the food pantry. Most of the rest of the people in Hunger 101 weren't so lucky. Getting a sense of how much a struggle it is and how quickly it can become a struggle for people - one lesson we learned from the North Texas Food Bank is that many of their clients are employed and professional workers who just can't make ends meet anymore through a variety of circumstances.

Seeing how challenging the forms are for food stamps and seeing how easy it is to get frustrated, one thing I am going to look into over the next couple weeks is seeing if and how I can lend my services as an advocate. It's always easier to have someone around who isn't as emotionally invested to help make sense of things. And wow do I see now how much it's needed.

From there, we went to our own simplified Cooking Matters tour at a local grocery store. We went through the tour where we learned that all milk has the same level of calcium - except chocolate that has somewhat less. We saw how to recreate a Hamburger Helper meal with our own ingredients for far less money. We talked a little about how know when produce is ripe and which to buy. All these skills and more are shared as the students learn to choose foods and fit them into their budget - something that will serve them for years to come.

We then headed back to the North Texas Food Bank where we participated in an abbreviated Cooking Matters class. Chef Ellen (who rocks of course) demonstrated each of the skills we'd need to prepare the meal from cutting the stem from the collard greens to julienning the carrots to slicing the onion. Then it was our turn. Each of us had to prepare portions of the meal - and in the full class each person would do each part of the meal to ensure that the skills transfer.

It's amazing what those simple skills can accomplish. Suddenly a healthy meal with low cost ingredients is doable. It's something that can be recreated by people who aren't comfortable in the kitchen, and what could possibly be better than that? At the end of the six week class, Chef Ellen explained that her goal is to have a clean cutting board because the students do all the work themselves and she has nothing to demonstrate.

And at the end of the classes, the students have a great cache of recipes to draw from. They go home with a mini cook book that I am actually going to be using myself. There are some neat recipes in there, and I can't wait to incorporate them into my family's meals.

I left for my flight before our meal was complete and ready to cook, but I heard great things about it. And leaving early doesn't mean that I'm done with Cooking Matters. Back in Chicago, I will be contacting the agency that hosts Cooking Matters to observe a class and learn more. I will be contacting the food bank closest to me to see what their needs are and how I can help out - knowing that I can't make a huge time commitment at this point in my life but also knowing that I have hours here and there and that this is something I care about.

Some statistics to think about:
17.2% of people in Illinois faced food hardship in 2009
34.2 for every 100 children in NSLP participate in school breakfast - ranking us 51st in the nation
There were just under 600,000 children in poverty in Illinois alone in 2009
Cooking Matters reached 11,600 families across the country in 2010
Over 1,500 volunteers helped make Cooking Matters happen
99% of participants would recommend Cooking Matters to a friend

What could you do to impact some of these statistics? Will you go sign the pledge to help end childhood hunger by 2015? Again, minimal info from you (email and zip), and you'll be shown so many ways you can make an impact.

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.

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