Oregon Food Bank's six-week cooking and nutrition course comes to East County
The classroom fills with laughter and chatter as nine chefs get to business preparing tonight's meal: pasta with green beans, apple raisin salad and peanut butter banana pockets.
It's a mouth-watering medley of aromas and a delicious combination of entrées.
This week marked the graduation for students in Cooking Matters, a course taught through the Oregon Food Bank Nutrition Education Program at Reynolds Middle School in a partnership with the Metropolitan Family Service (MFS) SUN Program.
During the six-week course, nine women have learned how to stretch their dollars, expand their culinary repertoire and cook nutritious meals for their families, incorporating all the food groups and items found in the school's food pantry.
They've learned both from their chef instructor, Anna Markley, and each other, enjoying weekly meals together at the end of class.
"There's a sense of community," said Megan Hartrick, an Oregon Food Bank Nutrition Education Program assistant. "It's like a family at the end."
Classes are open to men and women, but this class happened to include all women. They are available in English and Spanish, with Spanish interpretation offered for this class.
On their second to last night of class, students matched pantry foods to the proper food groups on a laminated diagram and paired up in smaller groups to formulate from-scratch recipes that would cover all the food groups.
The program's goal is to "improve health and build self-reliance in community members at risk for food insecurity."
Many of the families who participate in Cooking Matters fall at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, which is $44,700 for a family of four.
Last fiscal year, the program served 689 participants in 52 agencies, along with 323 participants through satellite partners.
According to statistics from fall 2013, 80 percent of Reynolds Middle Schools 950 students qualify for free or reduced price lunches and between 125-150 lack permanent housing. That ranked Reynolds Middle School as the sixth highest-need school in Multnomah County.
In October 2013, Multnomah County allocated funds for a food pantry at Reynolds Middle School, which opened in February 2014. Operated through the SUN Service System and stocked by the food bank, the new pantry allowed Markley to weave its foods into the curriculum.
"I wanted to learn how to prepare more meals for my family," said Ambrosia Reynaga, the mother of three children, ages 13, 9 and 5. Reynaga said her recipes had been well received by her family and the class inspired her to try out new foods she hadn't been exposed to.
She and other participants noted they loved the smoothie recipes, especially with frozen bananas and yogurt. They also loved the carrot muffins.
Now with the food pantry, students and their families can receive up to 50 pounds of food per family each month. The Multnomah County pantries serve 25 to 45 families each week at each site.
"We are learning to be versatile," Markley said. "We try to teach the tools to cook with foods participants might not normally buy. If we get a little from each food group, it's going to be better for us."
Kathy Block-Brown, Oregon Food Bank Nutrition Education Program coordinator, described the Cooking Matters graduations as festive and called them a great culmination of all that the participants have learned.
Block-Brown noted that the community kitchen concept was taking root across the United States and Canada. Community kitchens bring people together to share skills, resources and spaces for preparing affordable food. Each program has its own way of operating within the coalition of people who started them.
The food bank hopes that the communities built during Cooking Matters courses can continue afterward and become enhanced with participants gathering and practicing what they've learned together.
It's an idea participants and volunteers would embrace.
"I love how interactive this class is," Hartrick said. "It's not just a teacher talking at you. You can ask lots of questions and everyone shares their experiences."
At a glance
Oregon Food Bank's Nutrition Education Program has offered hands-on cooking and nutrition education courses using the Cooking Matters curricula for more than 6,330 low-income community members in the Portland area since 1999. Most recently, the program expanded in East County to Metropolitan Family Service (MFS) SUN Programs at Gordon Russell Middle School and Reynolds Middle School.
Partnered with the national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, the program strives to "improve health and build self-reliance in community members at risk for food insecurity." Students learn and practice cooking, nutrition, food safety and budget shopping during the six-week class taught in two-hour weekly sessions. At the end of the course, participants receive a course manual containing recipes, shopping tips and nutrition information, along with items such as cooking utensils and reusable grocery bags.
To learn more about the program, visit http://www.oregonfoodbank.org/Our-Work/Building-Food-Security/Education-Programs/Nutriton-Education.