NEW ORLEANS — Kate McDonald and two helpers stand in front of the nine kids in the Cooking Matters class, holding a length of green ribbon high above their heads. It spans most of the room at Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center on Lafitte St., where the children are in summer camp.
“Can anyone guess what in your body is 25 feet long?” McDonald asked the group. Looking at the length of ribbon, it’s hard to imagine anything.
“That’s how long your intestines are. Your food has to go through a maze,” said McDonald, teacher and coordinator for the local Cooking Matters program. She is teaching eight classes on healthy, affordable food this summer in New Orleans and Lafayette, for all ages. This is the youngest group, fourth- through sixth-graders.
The kids take turns poking tongs at the food experiment that started the class. It’s two slices of bread, one white and one whole-wheat, submerged in water in a Pyrex dish. This is a class on fiber and whole grains. The white bread is dissolving already.
“Is this Bunny bread?” one child asked.
“Cooking Matters” is a national program of Share Our Strength, the nonprofit whose goal is to end childhood hunger. There are 33 such programs nationwide. The program counted its 100,000th graduate in December. This Cooking Matters is under the auspices of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana.
“It’s an amazing program,” said Natalie Jayroe, the food bank’s president and CEO. “I haven’t been to one class, parents or seniors or children, where people haven’t been 100 percent engaged.”
The food bank’s massive summer feeding program, which will serve an estimated 215,000 meals to children this season in camps and other programs such as this one, serves healthy meals that mirror the lessons the children learn in classes, Jayroe said.
The classes are publicized through the food bank’s 300 member agencies, such as schools, Headstart programs and senior centers.
“What we would love to do is end hunger and improve the health outcomes of the people we serve, permanently, so they don’t need as much emergency food assistance,” Jayroe said. “This program helps solve the long-term causes of hunger.”
Cooking Matters began here in 2011, but it’s gaining traction now that it has its first full-time coordinator. McDonald, a 22-year-old Tulane graduate and dynamo from Mobile, Ala., has had 15 classes graduate since October. She loves the job.
“It’s a well-thought out program,” McDonald said. “We have different curriculum for different ages: Adults, families, kids, teens. There’s a specific curriculum for people with diabetes, HIV, for parents of pre-schoolers.”
To pass the class, attendance is required at four of the six classes. In some classes, where no one has graduated from high school, “it’s been really special to get a certificate that says congratulations, you completed something.”
She asks participants to call her if they’re not able to attend; one woman called to say she was not intentionally skipping the class: She was going into labor.
It’s hands-on learning, studying not just cooking and nutrition but unit pricing, budgeting and comparing fresh versus frozen versus canned.
“Each lesson is a nutrition idea,” she said. “We talk about nutrition, but also how to go to the store and buy whatever it is at an affordable cost, and know what it is and how to find it.” One problem, she finds, is that the grocery store “is this crazy maze.”
In the adult classes, “we do a $10 challenge. The week before (a grocery store visit), I tell them about it. They try to find a meal with at least three food groups, for four people, and if it’s healthy, I buy it for them.
“At the beginning when I tell them about it, everyone says you can’t do that. But (there have been) 15 classes now, and everyone has done it.”
One of the games in the adult classes is to study certain foods that seem healthy.
“You look at the front of the box and say, ‘What makes it look healthy?’ It’s a strawberry granola bar. The word ‘strawberry’ is big and the word ‘yogurt’ is really big. Then you look at the back it has 12 grams of sugar. This tiny little thing has that much sugar. Why not just eat a cookie?” McDonald said. “Yogurt, too. Some brands are 26 grams of sugar. I’d rather have a piece of cake.”
RECIPES THAT SATISFY
Chefs visit the adult classes to teach knife safety, kitchen tips and tricks, and the group cooks a meal to eat family-style. They are given the groceries to make the dish they learn about in class at home.
“Tomorrow we’re making healthy chicken fried rice,” McDonald said. “They get a bag of brown rice, a head of broccoli, bag of carrots, bunch of green onions, a thing of ginger and a head of garlic. And maybe a bell pepper. It’s to create the majority of the meal. We usually don’t give out a ton of meat.”
Chefs have helped create the recipes, which class participants take home in a cookbook. The recipes also are available to anyone with a smart phone, via a free, smartly organized and attractive Cooking Matters app.
McDonald has modified some of the recipes in the Cooking Matters cookbook to satisfy local tastes.
“No one in Louisiana in their right mind is going to have barley jambalaya,” McDonald said. “Good taste is no respecter of income. It’s wonderful, but it’s really a challenge.”
She changed a recipe for beans and greens pasta to include mustard greens and roasted garlic, a really big hit. Mango-cucumber salsa has been very popular in some of the classes.
“I made a recipe for healthy gumbo that people actually like,” McDonald said. “I was surprised. It’s with a dry roux.”
Volunteers in the class at Sojourner Truth are from the Delgado Community College dietetic technician program, on a summer field experience in community nutrition. Their professor and program chair, registered dietitian Donna Pace, said her students are loving the classes. Indeed, they all seem to be having as much fun as the children.
“The kids are so good,” Pace said. “We do a lot of programs with Second Harvest.”
Like all the food bank’s programs, volunteers are key. More volunteers are going to be required for Cooking Matters, an aspect of the program McDonald hopes to ramp up soon.
The kids have come to the cooking part of their class. The dietetic interns pass out plastic mats, plastic knives and paper towels. The kids cut up bananas, strawberries and apples. Then everybody heads to the kitchen to cook.
There are lots of breakfast-makers in the class already, McDonald said. Bryceson Jones, age 10, makes omelets at home.
“I make breakfast for me and my mom,” he said. “I made her breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day.
The children take turns scrambling eggs, then line up while McDonald heats oil in a skillet.
“It’s ready when waves go through the oil,” she says. “See the waves?” Each child steps forward and takes the spatula to push at the eggs until they’re done.
“I cook eggs and pancakes,” says Donavan Gutierrez, 12. “Since I was 6.”
The next task is grating cheese. Another line forms.
“Everyone fights over grating the cheese. It’s the most popular thing. We found it’s best just to let them all do it,” McDonald said.
Back in the classroom, the kids assemble delicious-looking nonfat yogurt parfaits, with their choices of fruit, granola, almonds and honey. Then each gets a piece of whole-wheat bread, cut in half, to make breakfast sandwiches with the eggs, cheese and pieces of turkey bacon.
McDonald’s intern, Ashleigh Schuermann, who is doing her practicum for the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, asks the children what other fruit could be used in the parfaits. They have lots of answers: pineapple, mango, kiwi, pears.
Mia Chenier, site director of the Young Audiences Summer Camp at Sojourner Truth, comes into the room.
“It’s a jazz brunch!” she exclaims. The Cooking Matters program “exposes them to things they don’t normally have. We feel it’s an excellent asset to the program.”
Miranda Cheatham, 12, says she is going to make the parfait when she gets home, “but blended” like a smoothie.
As for the class, “It’s really fun and stuff,” Miranda said. “It inspires me to be a chef when I grow up. I’m starting to learn. This class is awesome.”