By: Sarah Nelson from Cooking Matters
Earlier this summer, researchers at the University of Washington concluded that increasing our consumption of healthy fruits and veggies could cost us more than the way we eat now. Since I run a cooking and nutrition program called “Cooking Matters” that teaches families with limited food budgets how to stretch those budgets to include broccoli, sweet potatoes, apples, and other healthy goodies, every day I have the opportunity to see how tough it is to choose healthy food when the local supermarket sells five frozen dinners for $5. And yet, participants come to our classes wanting to learn how to make vegetables tasty, what exactly a whole grain is, which healthy food their kids will eat, and how to do it all with limited resources.
The Washington study reminded me of the real costs of cheap food: the price we pay to treat childhood obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, preventable, diet-related diseases that disproportionately affect low-income communities. If you don’t pay at the farmers’ market, a doctor I know likes to say, you’ll pay at the emergency room. Participants in our classes have seen family members affected by these diseases, and want to save themselves and their families. They have become food superheroes, fighting the evil forces of junk food marketing, cheap frozen dinners, and limited grocery options. And winning: “I always thought cooking healthy food took a lot of time and money,” said one Cooking Matters graduate in the Mission. “This class showed me I could cook healthy food fast and without spending a lot of money.”
The families we work with face real struggles; but when we gather around the table in a shelter’s community room, a food pantry’s lobby, or a diabetes clinic, everyone is smiling and taking second helpings of sweet potato tacos, turkey kofta, zucchini pupusas, homemade chicken soup, or whatever delicious, healthy meal we have prepared together that day. For two hours, we come together to cook, share a meal, and discuss the barriers to putting healthy food on every table. And when participants leave class, they take with them a bag of groceries to make that day’s recipes at home – as well as the confidence that they can prepare a fresh, healthy, affordable meal for their family.
So when Slow Food asked me to create a $5 meal, my first thought was, “For just one person? No problem!” The typical per-serving budget we stick to in class is about $1.75 per person. We shop at farmers’ markets, buy organic, and choose the best ingredients we can, while remaining conscious that our participants can’t always find quinoa, tofu, balsamic, or other gourmet healthy choices at their local stores. We stick to simple powerhouses like beans, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and our favorite veggie, kale (you haven’t lived until you’ve added kale to a smoothie!). For this challenge, I’ve created a farmers-market-fresh menu for breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner. Each meal costs less than $5, and features high quality ingredients – in some cases, higher quality than we would choose in our classes. Oh, also, I got a little carried away and made four different options for dinner. Oops!
If you’d like to see real chefs cooking dishes like these in your neighborhood, check out www.freshapproach.org/cookingmatters. And if you’d like to try cooking them yourself – we are always looking for volunteers.
Delicious and priced-out recipes from Cooking Matters coming soon!