Grace Heglund-Lohman is a Cooking Matters Colorado AmeriCorps member serving in Durango. Upon completing her first year of service, Grace shared this story, and thrilled us by signing up for another year of service! Read this firsthand account about the Cooking Matters program.
Why Cooking Matters…
I am a scientist by training and a former collegiate athlete. I want to “see the numbers” before I make an informed decision. Before I committed to Cooking Matters, I wanted to see the statistics to prove the effectiveness of this program. Show me percentages, quantifiable measures of improvement in the well-being of America’s most vulnerable citizens and I am all in. But for this program, I have learned, often the numbers only reflect the top of the carrot, neglecting what grows underneath. The full impact of the program cannot be easily explained or measured. The program piqued my interest amongst so many AmeriCorps programs related to Public and Community Health. So I took a leap of faith, took the position, and moved to Durango, Colorado.
And so began my term as an AmeriCorps member with Share Our Strength as a Program Coordinator for Cooking Matters. I hardly knew what I was getting into other than I was giving a year of service to my country. Looking back on the last eight months, I have learned more heartbreaking facts about childhood hunger in America than I would have ever believed possible. Yet, I have found much personal satisfaction in my daily work teaching basic nutrition and food skills to families at risk of going hungry.
I would like to share a little of my own strength, a little more about how Cooking Matters has touched me…
The program—primarily funded by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP Ed., formerly known as Food Stamps) — provides families with the skills they need to stretch their SNAP benefits and to feed themselves healthy, affordable meals. It makes cooking accessible, and brings us together around the table. And, it’s fun! Participants come from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, genders, socio-economic statuses and bring with them an array of languages and skill sets; a veritable melting pot of life lessons to share.
One class in particular showed me why we do what we do.
Throughout a course, families and individuals prepare and eat meals together over six weeks, forging friendships during meal preparation and dinner conversations. At the commencement of this particular class participants shared their thoughts about the program as we lingered around the table after our last meal together. One participant, when prompted to describe their feelings about the program wrote:
“…it’s not just a trendy program. The program might come off as a course or subject for those who seem ‘food dumb, disadvantaged, or simple-minded,’ but FAR from it… The course is substantiated by a solid mission to empower anyone who might not think they need food awareness, preparation, budgeting, and nutrition.”
This participant described their spiritual experience with food as I have come to see it through my work with Share Our Strength. Cooking Matters is a form of nourishment, not only for the body but for the soul. I like to tell my participants there are food groups that fuel all parts of our bodies, but some, like the occasional cupcake, are just plain good for the soul. Food has the ability to nourish and fuel our bodies, and when that experience is shared, it has the ability to engender feelings of time, of place, of tradition, of history and of community. During this course, we all learned to appreciate the culinary process more as a spiritual experience, “considering all the important aspects of who we are and cherishing those aspects by choosing the tastes, quantities and qualities of food we prefer” when creating a meal.
Learning how to improve the health of their families empowers participants to be the experts in their own lives. Empowerment starts when individuals learn to make healthier food choices but it extends so far beyond just a kitchen or a classroom. Inspired by Cooking Matters, this individual felt “More capable of re-evaluating and re-affirming all the passions they have for food.” Their vision is now beyond their own kitchen, “To create goals for greater food conversations with those I cherish most.”
Working with chefs, dietitians, food producers, donors, grocers and many, many families in my new community has taught me that the success of Cooking Matters can also be measured in the qualities it engenders in a community:
Cooking Matters inspires local investments in infrastructure, provides new economic opportunities, encourages community sharing, and promotes community health and wealth.
Cooking Matters encourages creativity and introduces FUN back into a practice that often seems too time consuming and too difficult for many American families. Families stressed by poverty are often so intimidated by cooking that they often leave it out altogether, despite the health ramifications.
Cooking Matters reconnects families, connects them to the food they eat, connects families to one another and connects them to the earth.
Cooking Matters because money matters and it is cheaper to cook for yourself.
Cooking Matters because it provides food where there is hunger.
Cooking Matters because if you give a person a meal, they eat for a day, but teach them to cook they can feed themselves for a lifetime.
Cooking Matters matters to me because of the many lives that have now touched mine. The stories I have learned, not in the office, but around the table. The heartfelt, smiling faces. The library of photos on my bulletin board taken by participants itching to show off their plating skills—oh, those beautiful arrangements! They are like bouquets of flowers—colorful arrays of all five food groups arranged on plates, surrounded by cutlery, and artfully laid out on pretty tablecloths. No numbers, no statistics, but this is all proof indeed that Cooking Matters.