Residents push healthy cooking

At last night’s Board of Aldermen meeting, the Board passed the Food Action Plan — a set of strategies for increased sustainability and improving access to healthy food in New Haven.

The six women sitting at this month’s meeting of the Cooking and Food Education working group, a branch of the New Haven Food Policy Council, have already begun implementing the plan. In the past year, the group has started cooking classes and promoted citywide healthy eating efforts, both elements of the new Food Action Plan. With the passage of the initiative, which will also include supporting community gardens and introducing more nutrition education into New Haven public schools’ curriculums, group members hope to broaden the outreach of their programs.

“It’s amazing to me that no one is stressing the need for culinary education,” said Nadine Nelson, owner of Global Local Gourmet and co-chair of the working group. “In order to see positive changes in the community, people need to know how to nourish themselves and cook well.”

Right now, the group’s main focus is broadening community access to cooking and nutrition classes by training New Haven residents to teach the basics of healthy cooking.

To address this goal, co-chairs Cara Donovan and Nelson are drafting plans for a new Master Cook Corps program.

Spurred on by requests for more cooking classes after summer festivals in Dixwell and Fair Haven, the new initiative will recruit 12 adults and 12 teenagers to teach cooking classes in their communities.

With an initial commitment of four classes a year, the newly trained teachers will go to community centers, schools and festivals, showcasing one of their own recipes. Donovan described this outreach as a way of bringing together the New Haven community through food.

The New Haven Food Policy Council cited increasingly unhealthy eating habits in the city as the main impetus for the new initiative. According to a 2009 CARE study, some segments of New Haven public school students reached nearly 50 percent obesity rates.

Nelson said obesity is still prevalent in southern New Haven.

“It’s amazing to see how many fried chicken restaurants they have down there,” she said. “I mean, they must be eating fried chicken 20 times a week.”

Members of the Cooking and Food Education group have seen how successful cooking classes can be in promoting healthy eating. According to the 2012 plan, 82 percent of graduate participants of New Haven Cooking Matters classes reported eating more fruit after the class, and 100 percent reported eating more vegetables.

Patricia Wallace, director of elderly services for the city, suggested “Easy, Healthy, Cheap” as a theme for new cooking classes.

Nelson said the most important part of the program, besides promoting healthy eating, is its community focus.

“If you’re learning cooking from someone that looks like you, you’re more likely to get quinoa and make it than if a doctor who doesn’t look like you told you to eat healthier,” Nelson said.

Yet the Cooking and Food Education working group faces a budget problem, even with a $5,000 grant from the Health Department for cooking classes. Nelson said that the passage of the Food Action Plan could attract more attention to the need for culinary education in New Haven, adding that she thinks the “training-the-trainer” model can be extended to add more teachers each year.

“Is there enough funding? No,” she said. “But is there funding? Yes. Which is a lot more than some organizations can say.”

Applications for the Master Cooks Corps are currently being drafted, but there are at least four cooking classes planned between now and the end of the year, including one at the Connecticut Mental Health Center and another with Q Terrace, a New Haven public housing project.

The new Master Cooks Corps will work closely with local organizations like CitySeed and Cooking Matters.

Comments