Following the Recipe for Health and Community

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

''The frittata and the carrot muffins were the favorite thing we made.'' -Stykhead (in red)''I feel more confident that I can leave here with what I learned as we cooked every week.'' -Josh''My favorite thing we made was shepherd's pie. Instead of using a recipe they gave me, I kinda put my own spin on it.'' -Tom (in green)
''The best part was learning, especially how to budget. And you know what? The volunteers… they really, really care. I didn’t think theyd be so personable, but they are. It really touched me.'' -Kristina
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Cooking Matters, a partnership between Central City Concern and the Oregon Food Bank, teaches clients the skills and knowledge required for healthy cooking and eating habits. Click on a photo to begin the slideshow.

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On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in November, the kitchen of Central City Concern’s (CCC) Living Room community space filled with sounds most could recognize as busy food preparation. The rhythmic rocking and knocking of a knife, the hollow echo of water falling on aluminum, the unmistakable crinkling of plastic packaging being opened and emptied, and even the overriding din of playful banter—all there.

Behind that noise? Eight people, all participants and soon-to-be graduates of the six-week Cooking Matters program, a partnership between CCC and the Oregon Food Bank. This was their final session as a group, so they were reveling in the chance to put what they’d learned in the weeks prior to good use. And based on that kitchen banter, they were having a blast doing it—together.

Since their first session, participants had gained a soup-to-nuts education on the skills and knowledge required for healthy cooking and eating habits, including following recipes and meal planning, shopping healthily on a budget and maximizing resources, understanding food labels, and even knife skills and food safety. At the end of each class, they received a grocery bag of food with which they could replicate the course they made that day.

According to CCC Health Educator Kerith Hartmann and Population Health Coordinator Linda Nguyen, the Cooking Matters curriculum can help address a number of issues common among Old Town Clinic (OTC) patients: food insecurity, weight gain, hypertension, coronary issues, and diabetes or pre-diabetes.

In fact, OTC primary care providers had been clamoring for a nutritional guidance program for patients for years and Kerith had often recommended Cooking Matters classes hosted by Oregon Food Bank elsewhere in the community. But the idea to bring the class to patients instead of referring patients out became more and more appealing, and soon enough the need was undeniable. “You wouldn’t necessarily think that there would be a cooking class based out of a medical clinic, but it makes so much sense, especially for the people we’re working with,” says Kerith.

With Oregon Food Bank on board to pilot a Cooking Matters class at CCC starting in late spring 2016, it was off to the races to find participants.

Approximately half of the Cooking Matters participants were identified and referred by their OTC primary care providers based on their medical histories and the level of engagement with their care. Because Cooking Matters builds on each week of curriculum, patients who showed an active engagement in their own care would benefit most.

Other participants were recruited through CCC’s Housed+Healthy initiative, which coordinates services between CCC supportive housing services and CCC’s health care programs. The work Housed+Healthy staff members do within the walls of CCC housing allows them to show clients that Cooking Matters is well worth attending, even if that means showing up at their doors prior to a session and walking with them to the Living Room.

“People living in our housing are inherently good candidates to benefit from Cooking Matters,” says Permanent Housing Manager, Dana Schultz. “They’re living in low-income housing, so they have budget restrictions and limited cooking resources. On average, people living in our housing are about 59 years old, which is when you see a prevalence of chronic conditions that can be managed through diet.”

Dana adds, “Plus, people who live in low-income housing have to be proactive about combating social isolation daily.”

Knowing that, the sounds heard in the Living Room kitchen take on a slightly different meaning. Those aren’t just the clatterings of making a meal. It’s the sound of people—all some combination of vulnerable, unwell, or isolated—coming together as the ingredients of community. Over the course of six weeks, they’ve encountered unfamiliar ingredients, learned new skills, grown in confidence, and broken bread—literally—together. They’re not shy about talking of this community aspect, either.

Tom, a Cooking Matters participant, says, “My favorite thing was being around these people and being able to cook something with different people around and eating together.”

Another participant, Stykhead, says, “The camaraderie here is great. Getting together and thinking of how we can cook better for ourselves. It gives a whole new outlook on how to cook.”

For Josh, Cooking Matters helped her extend community to her home. “I was able to share the food I made with my housemates.”

Though Cooking Matters at CCC has only completed two cohorts, stories of the program’s impact can start filling up a small cookbook. One patient lost enough weight to get a surgery she needed. Another participant loved learning how to make burritos so much that he not only stacked his freezer with them, but also gave them out to friends. Yet another made a lasagna for her neighbors. A few participants who lived in the same building developed a friendship during the program and held potlucks after they graduated.

Kristina, a participant in this latest cohort, says, “I can actually do a prepared meal on a regular basis. Before this preparing meals felt so tedious and hard to do. But now I have a plan in my head and it happens.” She pauses and lifts her chin up proudly. “And my son likes it.”

“I learned a lot as far as being able to buy healthy,” Stykhead shares. “It’s nowhere near as hard as I thought it was.”

Based on the popularity of Cooking Matters, Oregon Food Bank has committed to bringing the program to CCC for three more sessions through 2017. Their partnership, which includes providing additional volunteers, the curriculum, and all of the food used during each class, has been extraordinary, says Kerith.

Incorporating Cooking Matters into CCC helps send clients and patients on a trajectory to a better quality of life, Linda says. Participants have secured housing; with Cooking Matters, they are working their way toward securing health and moving toward overall wellness.

“It’s a joy to watch people’s faces light up when they try a new vegetable they love or even hate. At the end of the day, they get to enjoy a meal with people they like. And having that group of people to do this with compels them to believe that they can make all these skills a part of their daily life.”