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Quite Simply, Cooking Matters

Dennis Taylor, program coordinator, teaches a signature cooking class.

Volunteer Kathleen Busenbark groups together the groceries the cooking class participants will take home.

Cooking Matters is in its 19th year in Colorado.

With help from a nutritionist, healthy recipes are taught to class participants.

Participants learn various cooking techniques at Cooking Matters.

Teaching families to cook healthily on a budget is Cooking Matters' goal.

Of all the things to be thankful for this season, a full belly and good health are two of the most robust blessings. When it comes to making sure every Colorado kid remains healthy and full, Cooking Matters Colorado believes that cooking is what matters most.
"Not a lot of people think about how one in five kids in Colorado don't know where their next meal will come from," says Seattle Fish Company (SFC) president and CEO James Iacino, a long-time financial supporter of Cooking Matters Colorado who, four years back, "took it to next level" and joined the organization's board of advisors.
 
Icano's family-owned and -operated company, launched 95 years ago in downtown Denver by his grandfather, is, much like the organization it bolsters, a homegrown entity that's become an integral part of our local community. Overseas, SFC has made a name for itself as a leader in sustainable seafood, which happens to be one of the leanest, healthiest sources of protein available. 
 
And, at Cooking Matters Colorado, headquartered in the Highlands at 2727 Bryant St. and celebrating its 19th year in Denver, health is the name of the game. "Our community's health, individually and collectively, is integrally connected to the food we eat," says Berger, who teaches low-income families to help themselves by imparting basic cooking and nutritional skills. 
 
The local branch's national parent organization, Share Our Strength, a grassroots operation formed in the founder's Washington, D.C. basement in 1984, was created with a single, simple goal: end childhood hunger. Cooking Matters Colorado brings this to Colorado primarily through education.   
 
The signature offering Cooking Matters is in its 19th year in Colorado.
 
"We have a few things going on, but our main offering is the signature, six-week-long Cooking Matters course, which is mostly volunteer-driven and taught out of neighborhood locations," explains Cooking Matters Colorado’s Communications Manager Jody Berger. Weekly, two-hour-long classes are free for participants; and, while curriculum for families, teens, and kids is occasionally offered, the organization focuses mostly on adults because "they are typically the ones making food in a household."
 
Megan Bradley, Program Manager and Nutrition Educator, didn't have to tell me how much she loves what she does -- I can hear the passion in each inflection. Aside from her administrative endeavors, Bradley, who has a background in culinary arts and nutrition, also teaches some of the organization's classes.
  
Courses are co-taught by a chef and a nutritionist. Iacino engages area chefs, landing for the organization big names like Tyler Wiard, Executive Chef at Elway's, Matt Selby of Corner House and Jensen Cummings of The Slotted Spoon. "Chefs love to donate their time teaching classes," says Iacino. 
 
They start every session with demonstrations of basic techniques -- lessons in knife skills or braising, perhaps. Ingredients are then distributed, and students are "put to work practicing a new skill," says Berger.

Right now, Wiard volunteers his time at the organization's annual fundraising events. Come 2014, Wiard and several Elway’s sous-chefs plan to teach courses as well.

"When people are hungry, I've found they can’t do anything because they don’t have energy or brain power,” says Wiard. "It's pretty nuts that something like healthy food, which should be easily accessible, isn’t always available. There are lots of ways to make great food, and it doesn't have to cost a ton."
 
In celebration of Thanksgiving, most chefs will include a holiday dish in their November courses. "Depending on the course participants' requests, they might teach pumpkin muffins, stuffing, or warm apple compotes," says Berger. 
 
Once dinner is in the oven, a residing nutritionist discusses the collision of food and health. "We do a really good job teaching nutrition through food," says Bradley, who shares with participants simple concepts, like how adding veggies and beans to things you wouldn't normally add them to -- turkey tacos, perhaps -- increases nutritional value while stretching the meat. Menu planning, too, is an important skill when resources are scarce.
 
"We talk about produce a lot," Bradley continues. "Of course we want people to eat lots of produce, but we recognize fresh fruits and veggies are higher cost." Students learn that rinsing canned veggies in water, for example, reduces sodium by 40 percent (same principle applies to fruits canned in juice). "It's these little tips that help our families find the healthiest choices they can afford."
 
Lessons on seasonality and locality are also incorporated. "In the second week we give the tip that traditionally what is in the front of store is what's in season locally because it is what's on sale," Bradley adds.
 
Most interesting to Bradley is the behavior changes sparked, the lives -- especially the children's lives -- changed virtually overnight. "We are targeting people who are low-income and may be experiencing hunger, but we are also an obesity prevention program. Obesity and hunger can happen in the same household; a lot of people don't realize that."
 
At the end of each signature class, participants sit down together for a meal. They also receive a grocery bag full of ingredients needed to prepare what they've just cooked so they can go home and cook for their families. 
 
Participants learn various cooking techniques at Cooking Matters.Behind the scenes
 
To identify families who will benefit most from their services, Cooking Matters Colorado partners with state agencies like Colorado Head Start and Tri-County Health Department, Berger says, "refer their clientele into ours." 
 
The organization is funded, in part, by the Colorado Health Foundation, and also through SNAP-Ed, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education, administered by USDA's Food and Nutrition Service and formally known as food stamps. "Part of the SNAP funding is a small piece called SNAP education," Berger explains. "The government provides a benefit and then teaches people how to use it fully." 
 
Also pivotal are private donations, largely acquired during the Organization's two annual fundraising events: Taste of the Nation Denver, held in September, and Chefs up Front, scheduled for Sun. Apr. 6, 2014. At both events, chefs volunteer their time and talent and cook for the cause. "We've sponsored their primary fundraising event for ten years now," says Iacino of Chefs Up Front. "Seattle Fish Company has been invaluable," Berger says. And Swift, the meatpacker with major operations in Greeley, "has been really wonderful in donating food."
 
Purchasing food is another piece of the puzzle. Stretching things to maximum capacity is something Bradley saw as a kid growing up in a low-income family of seven. "Something as simple as reading unit prices while shopping can save money," she says. It's through Cooking Matters Store Tours that the organization aims to teach these practical shopping skills. 
 
"With store tours, we're trying to incorporate things like label reading, unit price, finding produce in various form," Bradley says. Volunteers stationed all over town meet people in stores like King Soopers, Safeway and WalMart, and give them tours that usually last about an hour. 
 
Since its inception, Cooking Matters Colorado has expanded into 44 counties around Denver, with the bulk of the expansion happening about four years ago. "We'll probably reach 4,000 people through this alone," says Berger. The organization does about three per week and trains volunteers to lead courses so they can bring information back to their own communities. This year, through approximately 350 classes, Cooking Matters Colorado will reach another 4,600 (or so) Colorado families. 
 
Empowering through education, it seems, is the best recipe for success.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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