‘Cooking Matters’ in the Food Desert

By Jonathan Bash June 19, 2018

Exzavier looks intently at a tall can of flavored Iced Tea, examining the nutrition facts label and other minute details. He puts it back down, opting not to open it.

“Heck no. That’s no good,” he declares. “75 grams of sugar? No way – I don’t want diabetes.” The rest of the class nods in agreement.

In lieu, they all proceed to make their own “spa waters” and “Fauxitos” with fresh mint, lime and sparkling spring water – all zero calories and half the price.

Soon after, one of the other course participants asks, “Wait…there’s no sugar in this? Are you sure?” The instructor, Alexis Gutierrez, responds, “I told you it was good!”

Just six weeks before, Exzavier and his fellow classmates hadn’t heard of spa water, let alone Fauxitos.

Many of them reported that soda is cheap and easy to access at the local liquor store, as is fast food. They also mentioned that food expenses are rising, exhausting their budgets. What’s worse, they were often feeling hungry and low-energy after eating a typical meal.

In response, Rubicon Programs, an East Bay-based nonprofit that works to end poverty, enrolled them in their new “Cooking Matters” class, an extensive course offered in conjunction with 18 Reasons, another organization that aims to help low-income communities make quick, healthy, affordable, delicious meals every day.

Kimi Barnes, Rubicon’s Health Resource Manager, made the initial connection.

“Our participants were tired of hearing ‘save money, set a budget,’ without concrete information on how to lower the cost of their largest expenditure on top of rent: food,” she says. “They also made it clear that their number one health goal has always been to eat better, so we thought, ‘why not create a cooking class that shows them how to accomplish all these goals?’”

Kimi soon bumped into the folks at 18 Reasons, who already had an entire curriculum and team ready to roll. She and their leadership were both on the same page, so the two organizations agreed to partner-up.

Clara Obstfeld, a coordinator of the course, began working with Kimi to offer the class to Rubicon participants.

“There are so many challenges for people in poverty trying to navigate the food system,” Clara says. “Misconceptions around labels, marketing terms, and what truly is healthy are so common, and time is a limited resource for many of them, making it hard to make informed choices – especially on a tight budget.”

The Cooking Matters course tackles all of these problems in two distinct ways: by teaching practical cooking and shopping skills, and tying those skills to all the information a consumer needs to cook a healthy, low-cost meal.

To maximize the course’s impact, they customize each course with direction from the class and the community – all the recipes are rooted in the students’ interests and cultural preferences. In fact, many of the educators and cooking instructors are from the neighborhood, and know what works.

“In a typical class, we spend the first half on a nutrition lesson – identifying whole grains and counting calories, for example,” Clara says. “Then we have a Chef’s lesson that puts those facts into action.” Participants learn to cook using toaster ovens and portable stoves, as well as develop sous-chef skills like proper knife technique and measurement skills.

The instructors also provide special assignments to the participants, including a “$10 Challenge” in which participants are asked to buy all the ingredients necessary for a balanced meal for the whole family, all while spending no more than $10. Some contestants prepare recipes from the class, like Fresh Veggie Quesadillas or Low-Fat Chicken Alfredo. Others invent creative new combinations with their newfound culinary instincts.

One participant, Luc, is a fan of seafood and was able to beat the challenge five-fold, making 5 delicious meals at $2 each: sautéed kale, honey-garlic roasted zucchini and smoked sardines – all made in a toaster oven or on a portable burner. He soon fell down the proverbial rabbit-hole, discovering his passion for cooking. After graduation, he continued his culinary education by transferring to The Bread Project, where he learned how to bake in a commercial setting, ultimately launching a new career in baking.

Meanwhile, other participants have improved their home lives in many ways thanks to the class.

Exzavier and his wife Doris, another participant, were both enrolled in the most recent workshop series offered by Rubicon Programs. Both are working with Rubicon to strengthen their careers, build a strong economic foundation, and improve their family’s health and wellness.

“We did the class together as a family – Kimi took care of my five-year-old son Sirod while we focused on cooking – and it was a great experience,” he says. “We reconnected and discovered a new activity for us to bond over. Now, each night, everyone is excited to eat together, even my older kids. We share more at the dinner table. We talk with each other more. We congregate more.”

“We also are able to do more with less. We buy healthier and always bargain shop.”

Kimi is proud of the work Rubicon and 18 Reasons has done with the course, but she also says that there is much more work to do changing the food system.

“It’s not all about education,” she says. “People aren’t stupid. The issue is access. The choices we all make are limited by the options we have. If the only options within walking distance of your home are a liquor store and a Drive-Thru, what choice do you really have?”

She says that more equitable urban planning, incentives for grocery stores to move into low-income neighborhoods, and increased access to community gardens, farmer’s markets and other avenues to fresh food will all hopefully move the needle.

But until then, she, Clara, and her team will continue to chip away at the problem one family at a time.

Luc ​kily, the strategy appears to be working.

​“This class changed my life,” Exzavier explains. “After our first meal, I actually felt full. I no longer felt tired. Honestly, I felt like I could go back to work at 8 o’clock at night. I have so much more energy now – when I wake up in the morning, I feel like I’m on fire!”

Your support can help Rubicon continue to bring courses like Cooking Matters to those in need.  Donate today.