In 1985, as the new Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) Director in Washington State, I needed to institute short-term measures to reduce food costs among WIC participants to meet budgetary requirements. At that time, WIC participants had the choice of purchasing peanut butter or dried beans. Dried beans were significantly less expensive than peanut butter, so I instituted a policy of giving participants the option of purchasing only dried beans.
The results in cost savings far exceeded my expectations, as food costs dropped significantly. However, I did not understand at the time why the drop in costs exceeded my anticipated results; after all, I had calculated the cost difference in the two products and used good data to determine the number of purchases. Much to my surprise, I learned that WIC participants were not purchasing their dried beans. WIC staff went into the field to find out why, and we learned that in spite of our best efforts in providing nutrition education, pamphlets, and materials and explaining the rationale, WIC participants simply did not know how to prepare dried beans. They would rather not use their food benefit than purchase dried beans and not use them.
We spend millions of dollars on nutrition education in our food assistance programs, teaching people about the importance of healthy eating, trying to motivate them to purchase healthy foods, and providing them with materials and guidance about the foods that are best for their family. However, we sometimes forget that addressing basic skills, such as food preparation and cooking, may be just as or more important than these other efforts. People need to feel that they can make good use of the foods they are encouraged to purchase and feed their family.
One such organization that has taken on the challenge of helping low-income individuals to better feed their families is Share Our Strength. This national, non-profit organization is dedicated to eliminating childhood hunger through its No Kid Hungry efforts. As part of these efforts, the Share Our Strength Cooking Matters® program, developed in 1993, teaches low-income families basic skills in meal preparation and healthy eating—providing families with the knowledge and skills to prepare healthy, affordable meals. A collaboration between culinary and nutrition professionals, Cooking Matters® employs a practical hands-on teaching approach designed for a broad audience. The program has reached more than 265,000 low-income families through courses and store tours across the United States.
Altarum recently evaluated this program to examine both the immediate and intermediate impacts of the program on families. The study consisted of a pre-and post-intervention survey, and surveys at three and six months after the participant completed the course. These results were compared to a control group.
The results of the study are quite impressive! At its highest level, findings show the following:
- Individuals completing the Cooking Matters® course show significant improvement in attitudes, beliefs, and self-confidence in purchasing, preparing, and serving healthy food choices.
- Cooking Matters® participants show a significant increase in healthy shopping, cooking, and eating behaviors after taking the classes, both in terms of adapting new behaviors and the frequency of these behaviors.
- Persons taking the Cooking Matters® classes are more likely to prepare meals at home, rather than going to restaurants or fast food outlets.
- Not only do Cooking Matters® participants have increased confidence levels in purchasing, cooking, and serving healthy foods, they sustain these behaviors over time.
It is clear from this study that Cooking Matters® participants make initial changes in their skills, behaviors, and self-efficacy and can retain these skills over time. There is clear documentation that the initial changes that are made by participants are retained after 3 and 6 months of having completed the Cooking Matters® course. There was a statistically significant difference between the intervention group and the control group in all areas measured.
Clearly the course makes a difference to participants, and they are able to retain the skills, knowledge, and self-efficacy improvements that were the result of participating in this program. In the words of one of the participants, “I felt like I was never a good cook and felt like I needed to fix meat and potatoes every day for my family. After taking the class and trying to cook new foods at home, my family seemed surprised! My kids love the new recipes, and I feel like I can buy and serve healthy foods now with confidence.”
More information about the organization Share Our Strength, its efforts to end childhood hunger, and the Cooking Matters® program can be found at www.nokidhungry.org.