In 2007, Alicia McCabe started as a coordinator at Cooking Matters, at the time a 13-year-old local division of the national Share Our Strength Program, which seeks to improve nutrition and teach better cooking habits to low-income families. It was a two-person office focusing primarily on Boston residents. In six years, Cooking Matters has grown rapidly, expanding statewide. McCabe is director of the Massachusetts chapter. “We were doing about 40 of our six-week courses a year. We’re now up to 100,” she says. “Plus, we now do a large number of one-time workshops and we’re expanding our one-time grocery store tours.”
To recruit families and find space for workshops, the group partners with community organizations like ABCD Head Start, then brings in volunteer chefs and nutritionists. More than 8,000 local families have participated in the six-week courses and another 8,500 have attended one-time educational events, many of those families in the last several years. Now all of the recipes used in the program can be found on the Cooking Matters app, available from iTunes and Google Play.
Q. You’ve had some big-name chefs volunteer for your program. Do they come to you or do you reach out to them?
A. A little bit of both. When we first started back in ’94, we had some great chefs that had been very engaged with Share Our Strength and had participated in a lot of the benefits that we do, like the Taste of the Nation event each April. There’s some great champions like Andy Husbands, Gordon Hamersley, and Jason Santos that got really involved and talked about it among their cooks. So there was definitely a lot of restaurant chef involvement in the early days. As folks got more established in their careers, we started seeing a little less of them in the classroom and a little more of them at the benefits and the culinary events that we were doing. We got some new chefs that kind of found us through volunteer postings or word of mouth. We get a lot of career changers, folks who have gone to culinary school or have previously been in the industry and now are doing something else but love to cook and want to give back in the community.
Q. What kinds of tips do you give participants on grocery store tours?
A. What we really try to stress is it’s often more about adding things to your diet than it is about taking things out. Can you add in more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables? So we’ll have a conversation with folks about the pros and cons of the different kinds of produce that are available. A lot of people come in with the idea that fresh is the only type of produce that’s healthy, so we’ll kind of walk through the pros and cons of frozen or canned and it gives people the opportunity to think about whether that works for them and whether it would work for their family. It gives them permission to say, “Oh you know, having a can of green beans or peaches isn’t a bad thing.” That can actually be a really good thing. So we’ll talk about things that are packaged in juice or water or things that are no sodium or no salt added.
Q. What about reading labels?
A. We’ll talk about things like how ingredient lists are organized by volume. That first ingredient means there’s more of that in that product than anything else. So in the cereal aisle when someone picks up Apple Jacks and realizes there’s more sugar than any other ingredient, it enables them to think maybe there’s a different cereal option out there where sugar isn’t the first ingredient and then make some changes from there.
Q. Do you help create budgets?
A. To a degree. We don’t sit down and map through, how much money do you have each week to spend on food and how you’re doing it. It’s more giving people tips and techniques. When we’re taking folks on a grocery store tour, whether it’s part of a course or the stand-alone tour, it’s identifying what a unit price is and this is how you can use this to make a more economical choice. It’s understanding how things are packaged, what store brands are, and how to shop for sales, buy larger containers of yogurt that are plain and flavor them however you want to be savory and sweet. It’s a lot of techniques like that that end up giving people the skills that they need to be able to make those choices themselves. So it isn’t so much a set of budgets, it’s an arsenal of skills and tools that they can exercise as they feel so inclined.