There’s the sound of stove timers beeping.
The clattering of knives on cutting boards.
Water running and women chatting as they wash their hands.
It’s time for class in the tiny trailer behind the Toledo Seagate Food Bank. Here, for several hours each week, two classes of young moms have been meeting to learn and improve their cooking skills.
It’s part of a growing trend of food banks offering nutrition education classes, cooking classes, demonstrations, and recipe distribution to clients.
The goal is to teach young mothers and fathers the basics of cooking and meal planning, said Aggie Alt, community awareness director for Seagate Food Bank. Students must have a child under age 4 and must commit to the full eight weeks of classes to participate. The food bank has been recruiting students through partners such as the Polly Fox Academy, a school for teen mothers, and area churches.
The trailer is outfitted with two complete kitchens, standing side by side. The wall above the counter offers inspiration for those whose culinary skills don’t come naturally. A large inscription reads, “Nothing is impossible to a willing heart.”
Instructor Teri Easter calls out tips routinely to her students throughout the two-hour lesson: “It’s cheaper to buy a whole chicken and break it apart.
“Here’s how to cut an onion so it won’t make you cry.”
She also keeps a watchful eye over her students: “Are you texting?” she asks one young woman.
“Are the counters wiped down?”
Lessons include safety and sanitation, simple recipes such as fruit parfait, applesauce, pancakes, and eggs, as well as meal planning, shopping tips, and using coupons.
“I really didn’t cook [before this],” said Evelyn Wright, an 18-year-old in the class. “I learned how to do a lot more.”
Paris May, 23, a classmate, said she knew how to cook but typically made mostly fried foods.
Student Solana Mendoza said she plans to use recipes, such as the homemade applesauce that students learned how to make in the first class, to feed her 7-month-old twins.
Classes such as theirs are on the rise as food banks, such as the one in South Toledo, strive to do more than just distribute food.
“For many food banks, nutrition education has been integrated for quite some time, but we have definitely seen a steady increase in the number and scope of these kinds of programs in recent years,” said Shannon Traeger, spokesman for Feeding America, a hunger-relief organization with a network of more than 200 food banks.
Many low-income families do prepare food at home but struggle to make healthy meals, according to a study released this year by Share Our Strength, an organization founded to fight childhood hunger.
The study found that 85 percent of the families surveyed said that eating healthful meals is important to them, and two-thirds of families were interested in learning about cooking healthful meals.
Additionally, 40 percent of families who say eating healthful meals is important are not providing such meals most days, the study found. Further, low-income families who regularly plan meals, write grocery lists, and budget for food make healthful meals from scratch more often than those who don’t, according to Share Our Strength.
“We know from nearly 20 years of experience serving low-income families across the country that every parent wants what’s best for their child, regardless of income level. But, as our study found, some families struggle to afford healthful grocery items. Simple strategies like comparing unit prices and buying frozen and canned fruits and vegetables when fresh are too expensive can help families stretch their food dollar in a healthy way,” said Leigh Ann Edwards, the group’s acting director.
Class instructor Ms. Easter, 24, a culinary student at Owens Community College, said she enjoys teaching recipes her students can make with their children and ingredient substitutions that can make dishes more healthful, such as ground turkey in place of ground beef or low-fat milk instead of whole milk.
“I think it has gone really well. … I don’t think there’s been anything we’ve done so far that they haven’t been able to do,” she said.
Ms. Alt said she believes among the most important lessons are teaching students how to use items, such as squash, that the food bank distributes and people probably don’t know how to prepare. “If we give away fresh vegetables, and no one knows what to do with [them], then we’re not really giving it away,” she said.
Mykaela Bailey, 18, who took the class last year, said she learned how to make chicken stock and homemade soup as well as canning techniques.
“I learned different ways to put food together,” said the East Toledoan. “And some of the things I was doing wrong at home.”
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks, said many food banks strive to educate their consumers about healthful, nutritious cooking.
“We work directly with [Ohio State University] Extension [offices] to distribute recipes for foods we get in, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Patrice Powers-Barker, an extension educator in Family and Consumer Sciences at the Lucas County Extension Office, said the free classes her office offers are to help people stretch their food dollars and make healthful decisions.
“We think healthy eating is important for our entire community,” she said. The Extension Office has been a partner on some of the Seagate Food Bank’s classes.
Contact Kate Giammarise at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6091.