It's a blustery night and the warm confines of the Woman of Steel Building in Garden City feel pretty good to those who have just shown up for a Cooking Matters class, put on by The Idaho Foodbank and other local partners. The comforting aroma of something in the oven, possibly a chocolate cake, fills the air.
The Woman of Steel Building was once an art gallery, owned by metal sculptor Irene Deely, thus the name. This stylish structure on Chinden Boulevard (next to the Visual Arts Collective) is now a catering facility for Kanak Attack Katering, and it has become a community kitchen, in many ways, which helps to explain the commercial hot line tucked away in the back.
The kitchen on this evening is a hive of activity. Students move about preparing several dishes they have recently learned at this six-week program that teaches people how to cook healthy food affordably. Instructors are on hand to offer guidance with each and every recipe.
Cooking Matters, part of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, is a national nonprofit program that's been going strong in the U.S. for 20 years. (The program currently operates in 40 states.) It came to Idaho about two years ago, thanks to the efforts of The Idaho Foodbank, the administrator for the program throughout the Gem State.
"It's a franchise model that contracts with groups like us in different states," explains Jessyca Tyler, nutrition education coordinator for The Idaho Foodbank.
She goes on to talk about The Idaho Foodbank's new hires in the Pocatello and Lewiston offices, making it possible to offer even more classes in the state.
"We have some new boots on the ground. It has really helped us grow the program in Idaho," Tyler says.
This particular class is under the auspice of the Genesis World Mission, a faith-based group that offers resources to new Americans and other folks in the community. On this evening, the students have come together one last time to make and taste a variety of healthy, affordable dishes, including Moroccan carrot salad, Southwest black-eyed pea and corn salad and chocolate cake (moistened with applesauce) topped with fresh raspberries. It's a party atmosphere, for sure.
After the food is elaborately displayed on a small wood bar in the lounge area, everyone gathers around for a definitive pep talk from Tyler and Scott Bassin, a local chef who has been involved with the Cooking Matters program in the area for the last year.
"It's easy to cook creatively during every season, even this time of year, when you can find lots of pomegranates, dried apricots and fresh herbs - bright food with bright colors," Bassin exuberantly tells the group.
The Idaho Foodbank often works in conjunction with the University of Idaho's Dietetics program, which keeps a clinical facility at its satellite campus in Boise - Downtown in the Idaho Water Center, at the corner of Broadway Avenue and Front Street. Some undergraduate students in this program spend their senior year in the City of Trees, while others work out of an office in Coeur d'Alene.
Nicole Swenson, from Enumclaw, Wash., is one student dietitian who is already making a difference in her chosen field. She and other practicum students get hands-on experience by working with programs like Cooking Matters, which includes an Albertsons grocery store tour for one week of the class. During the tour, participants are taught how to spot good deals, shop from the bulk bins and identify different fresh fruits and vegetables.
Swenson stresses to the group the importance of looking for seasonal food, and that includes knowing what everything is in the produce aisle. "There were even some vegetables there that I've never seen before," she confesses.
Obviously these Cooking Matters classes also pay dividends to student dietitians like Swenson, who are eager to teach people about the benefits of cooking from scratch, which tends to be a healthier and more affordable way to eat, as opposed to buying expensive microwaveable dinners and other highly processed foods. The class participants welcome Swenson's suggestions.
"I love eating fresh. This class has really opened my eyes to a whole new way of eating," Diane Saxman says. "I'll probably never eat anything out of a box again."
Other participants in the class are interested in the bigger picture, one that goes beyond their own health.
"I think it's very important to pass along this knowledge to the younger generations, how to eat healthy," says Yolanda Guerrero, who took the class, in part, to help her granddaughter make better dietary choices.
"Kids don't like veggies. Try slow changes, like using spinach instead of iceberg (lettuce) or switching to whole wheat pasta for macaroni and cheese."
Guerrero's right. Many children look at kale and broccoli with great disdain, but gradually working nutritious greens and grains into recipes is a good place to start, especially when it comes to the ongoing challenges of introducing new foods to kids.
Speaking of kids, Cooking Matters also offers classes designed for teenagers, and there are even classes that parents and children can take together.
"We've literally had parents shed tears of joy from what they've learned in these classes," Tyler says.
Cooking Matters classes are small (about 12 participants per class) and several courses take place simultaneously throughout the year at various locations around the state. Upcoming classes in the Treasure Valley for the new year are slated for Life's Kitchen, St. Vincent De Paul and the Morley Nelson Community Center, to name a few.
All participants receive a recipe book with nutritional information (the one that's used in the class), and in the end they get a swag bag holding an apron, kitchen gadgets and a flexible cutting board - tools to help them be successful with their newfound eating styles.
Eating for a few dollars a day can be a challenge, even for the most resourceful families out there. University of Idaho's Dietetics program offers free workshops (separate from the Cooking Matters program) on how to eat healthy for three bucks a day per person.
"It's not that you can't afford to eat healthy. People just need to learn how to buy in bulk and build a good pantry of different foods. That's important," says Dr. SeAnne Safaii, a University of Idaho professor of dietetics who specializes in food and nutrition. (Safaii writes a regular column about nutrition for this magazine. See her column in this issue on page 27.)
Those are just some of the things people take away from the workshops, which are put on by senior undergraduate students looking to gain valuable practicum experience - under the guidance of Safaii and her staff - on their way to becoming registered dietitians.
"We teach things like how to shop for healthy items, such as greens and grains, and the importance of using a crockpot to cook big meals. We even teach gluten-free workshops," Safaii says.
She believes that having a solid plan for the grocery store is imperative. This means writing a shopping list and not wandering away from it en route to the potato chip aisle. There are so many ways to save money. For example, buying whole chicken instead of chicken breasts can save people around $2 a pound.
It's important to note that these workshops only take place during fall semester, but the students will go just about anywhere to put one on. They typically get calls from hospitals, schools and The Idaho Foodbank.
Safaii says people can quickly get into trouble - financially and nutritionally -by making bad choices between meals, when they tend to be compulsive because they get hungry. That promise of eating for $3 a day can hastily go out the window, the same way money does at a fast-food restaurant drive-through.
"People often eat what they see, eat what's around them," she says.
"Everybody should keep healthy snacks on their desk or wherever they are, like apples and those beautiful, little tangerines. Kids love them, too."
James Patrick Kelly, a restaurant critic at the Idaho Statesman, is the author of the travel guidebooks "Moon Idaho" and "Spotlight Boise." He also teaches journalism at Boise State University.