Could You Pass Shop(ping) Class?

Cooking Matters teaches people how to look for inexpensive, nutritious foods. But the program may be reduced due to federal budget cuts.

Can you make sense of nutrition labels? Do you know how to shop healthy? (Photo: RiverNorthPhotography/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

It was Marion Nestle’s book What To Eat that nudged Mary Pittaway and the staff at the Missoula City-County Health Department in Montana to begin holding nutrition classes at the local supermarket five years ago.

“Rather than put people in a classroom, we decided to take them to the store in small groups of no more than ten, where we’d teach them how to weigh produce; to compare dairy products and look for those low in fat with no added sugar. We’d compare the price of fresh produce to junk food to show that the price is the same or cheaper,” she tells TakePart. “We went food-group by food-group and talked about the best nutrition available.”

While they started the project on their own, the department went on to adopt hunger advocacy group Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program. Today, they’ve nurtured over 300 participants through the program, specifically targeting the county’s low-income residents, seniors and weight-control groups.

“The Cooking Matters program puts more accountability on the teacher,” says Pittaway. “We got the store to give $10 gift cards, and we’d let parents pick out $10 of healthy food. But with Share Our Strength, participants would have to pick an entire meal for their families for $10. It puts the lesson into action, and it’s part of the program that we loved. We’re on a roll with it. It’s really working well.”

Today, the store tour has been run in 46 states. But according to the Washington Post, the Cooking Matter program (which also includes a six-week cooking course) may be in financial trouble.

“The recent deal to avoid the ‘fiscal cliff’ decreased funding for nutrition education, which helps to pay for programs such as Cooking Matters, by $109 million, or 28 percent, for the current fiscal year. As a result, Share Our Strength anticipates that Cooking Matters will serve at least 3,000 fewer families than planned,” writes reporter Jane Black.

Cooking Matters teaches participants how to read labels, compare unit prices accurately, to check fat content and sodium levels, and to shake out less than honest claims made on packaging. The curriculum helps to stem the powerful influence of sophisticated marketing techniques that place that box of sugary sweet cereal at your child’s eye level, for example, by teaching participants how to make the best, most nutritious decisions for their family.

So we can’t help but wonder: Have grocery shopping and label-reading become so complex we now need a class for it? Not exactly, says chef Greg Silverman, director of Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters At The Store.

“But when people go on the tour, it’s an eye-opening experience,” says Silverman.“We know the tour is a quick way to give people ideas, tips and tools. People are really busy. They have children with them when they shop. They have a limited amount of time. We know that people can have healthy, affordable food that tastes great. We just need to help them.”  

Interested in taking a grocery store tour? You can check this map. No tour available in your community? No need to fret: There’s a video available as well, and links in case the tour is something you think you’d like to teach yourself.

Why? “Because cooking matters. It’s not just two simple words,” says Silverman.

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