In a fully-equipped kitchen at Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul, a group of girls surround CeAnn Klug, who is about to try to change their cooking and eating habits.
"We're going to start today with rice," Klug says, as she preps a stir fry recipe. "Who has tried brown rice before?"
“What we're doing is not only showing them how to cook, but also [how to use] ingredients that they might be able to get at a food shelf.”CeAnn Klug
Not one of the girls looks thrilled. But that doesn't deter Klug, an instructor for Cooking Matters, a nationwide program run in Minnesota by University of Minnesota Extension in which local chefs volunteer to provide free classes to low-income kids and adults.
She plunges ahead. Cooking Matters was recently invited to the school as part of a health program called Fit Team. All the students in the class are at risk for diabetes, and this is one of six classes designed to teach cooking, nutrition, and budgeting skills.
Even though the students appear skeptical as Klug chops vegetables, the class comes alive as the students choose teams and makes the meal on their own. They fret over sauce, adding enough water, and preventing their creations from burning.
"What we're doing is not only showing them how to cook, but also [how to use] ingredients that they might be able to get at a food shelf, and bringing those home and really knowing how to work with them," Klug said. "If they don't know how to prepare it in a way that their family is going to want to eat it, they're going to look for other sources. That may be processed foods in grocery stores; it may be going to fast-food restaurants or going out to eat more. And that adds up, in calories and fat, and also in dollars."
That makes sense to New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, who said cooking can help families eat healthy food on a tight budget. He insists cooking is cheaper than eating fast food, or ready-made food from a convenience store.
"It's really not true that junk food is cheaper than cooked food," Bittman said. "It's really not true that you can buy junk in the convenience store and eat on it all the time on a budget. It really is true that sort of the only way you can get by is to cook some stuff."
A national survey from the anti-hunger group Share Our Strength recently found nearly 80 percent of low- and moderate-income families cook evening meals at least five times a week. Two-thirds said they want to learn more about making healthy food.
That contradicts a commonly-held notion that low-income families often turn to processed or fast food.
In Minnesota, U of M extension has responded by offering more Cooking Matters classes, and by incorporating more hands-on cooking into its statewide nutrition education program, Simply Good Eating.
"People see the food shows. I think all the food channels have really helped promote cooking at home," said Sue Letourneau, health and nutrition program leader at the U of M's Extension Center for Family Development.
Letourneau admits that home cooking takes some strategizing for people who live on a limited budget and tight schedule that may include working multiple jobs. Low-income families may have less time, and certainly less money. That's why programs also focus on shopping and nutrition.
Hellen Keraka, an educator in Simply Good Eating, another university extension program, recently took the message to a group of Somali women at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Minneapolis, at the invitation of the Health Commons at the Darul Quba Cultural Center. She spoke with the group about how to find a good deal at the grocery store, and how to make vegetables last.
"I'll give you a little trick," she tells the women. "I buy a whole carton of tomatoes. Pack it up in small bags, and put it in the deep freezer. And that's enough for a whole year for me."
As the women translate for each other into Somali, faces light up.
"Wonderful," Fardousa Yossuf said. "I wish I knew that idea before. So which other vegetable I can put in the freezer?"
Yossuf is a big promoter of health in her community, and one of the women who wanted the university to come to the mosque. She said people in her community need tricks like this if they're going to eat well.
The university's nutrition education programs reach more than 80,000 people each year, most of whom are low income. Only a small percentage of the work is now devoted to hands-on cooking, but that is changing.
In 2011, Cooking Matters reached about 300 people in Minnesota. Organizers hope to serve more than 700 this year. They'll add several metro sites, plus sites in the north central part of the state. Nutrition educators are also increasing cooking preparation and cooking demonstrations as part of Simply Good Eating, which operates statewide in food shelves, community centers, schools and other community gathering spots.
While that is still a small percentage of low-income Minnesotans, Bittman, of The New York Times, said that's no reason to dismiss the efforts. Teaching more people to cook now will bear fruit down the road.
"Every problem with food right now is going to be solved in two generations," he said. "It's not going to be solved in five years."
It's especially important to teach kids to cook, he said.
Back at Johnson Senior High School, most of the girls say they'll try the stir fry at home. They love the broccoli in it, but very few are sold on the brown rice.
"I feel like this could actually help us put our voice into our family and say, 'Instead of using corn oil, for example, why not use canola oil?'" said April Nunez, 17. "Or have an opinion when we go to the grocery market, and say, 'Why not use this? Not only is it healthier, but it might also be cheaper, and it tastes just as good.' It's just little bits and pieces that make a difference."