Free, Low-Cost Cooking Classes Aim To Help Underserved Communities Eat Better

05/22/2015 06:03 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015
minako yoshida

CHICAGO -- A weekly after-school cooking and nutrition class is having a big impact on the lives of families in some of the city's underserved communities.

The Chicago Park District's "Fun With Food" program is using the city's former field houses, website CivilEats reports, as venues to teach children how to prepare healthy food that's also appealing to their taste buds, such as "apple nachos supreme" and creamy avocado toast.

Classes, tailored to children ages 6 to 12, will be held in 11 locations throughout the city this summer, and will also teach participants about food sanitation, knife and utensil skills, and portion control in line with U.S. dietary recommendations. The program's partnerships with area urban farms, such as Growing Power, and nearby school and community gardens help students learn more about where their food comes from. Some of the classes, particularly those in lower-income parts of the city, are free, while others charge a low registration fee.

CPD wellness manager and registered dietitian Colleen Lammel-Harmon, speaking to Chicago Health magazine in 2012 about the program, explained that participants learn how to make healthier food choices at the grocery store in a way that's fun, accessible and hopefully will result in a lasting change.

"One week, we will ask the children to bring in their favorite food, and we'll break down the ingredients so they can get a better sense of what they are eating and what is and isn't healthy,” Lammel-Harmon told the magazine. "Another week, we will create a mini grocery store and help them identify better options for their favorite foods."

Programs elsewhere in the country are making similar efforts to help families in low-income communities learn to shop for and prepare healthy, budget-friendly meals.

Cooking Matters, an initiative of the national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, teaches free, six-week-long nutrition classes for adults, children and families alike, and has been doing so since its founding in 1993. The D.C.-based program facilitates the classes nationally by partnering with volunteer instructors like 18 Reasons, a San Francisco group that runs a community cooking school.

Programs like Cooking Matters can be effective, too. According to the group's 2013 annual report, 71 percent of adult graduates of the class reported eating more vegetables, and 66 percent of teen graduates said they were eating more fruit after the program.

Such programs do face some challenges. Multiple studies have indicated there's no connection between access to fresh food and a community's eating habits or obesity rates, suggesting that the need for effective nutritional education is all the more important.

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