Healthy Cooking 101
At Urbana High School, Amanda Perez teaches an independent living class that aims to prepare teenagers as they enter the “real world.”
“So, we’re preparing students to live on their own,” Perez explained. “So, a lot of that is focused on the financial career aspect, but what goes into that is, ‘Ok, you’re living on your own. What kind of food are you going to eat because the kind of food that you eat kind of influences everything else you do?’"
Perez is working with teenagers to help them think about think about food differently. Students in the class are required to prepare a healthy meal on a budget with ingredients that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new dietary recommendations.
"So, they came up with some creative stuff,” Perez added. “We had some stir fry with whole grain rice. That was good. Some of my students made Mexican pizzas. We always tried to think if you’re using a grain and what kind of grain is a healthier choice."
Kaitlyn Breitenfeldt and Miranda Bullok took the class this past year. They say they have been making a conscious effort to eat healthy for a while now – even before the class.
"(Eating healthy) means eating things that are healthy for you and not just ramen noodles,” Breitenfeldt said. "Even though you don’t have a lot of money, you can still make healthy things."
“Even in college, when you’re on a limited budget, you’re supposed to be studying and working hard, and you can’t do that on unhealthy foods,” Bullok added. “So, being able to make healthy stuff, and not break your budget.”
But Urbana High School student Tessla Varvel, who was also in the class, is just now starting to think about the importance of home cooking. “I know it’s important to eat healthy, but I don’t really apply it as much as I probably should to my life,” Varvel said.
In fact, Varvel said what she is learning in the independent living class is beginning to rub off on her at home where she is starting to talk to her parents about healthy eating.
“I mean my parents, they don’t really cook,” she said. “So, they kind of poorly influence me to eat out and stuff…and also frozen pizza and I hate frozen pizza now. My parents didn’t really cook as much so it’s just grown on me.”
Teacher Amanda Perez is going out in the community, studying efforts to start up cooking classes, like the Common Ground Food Co-Op’s “Eating Healthy on a Budget” class.
Mary Higgs, who works at the Co-Op, said eating healthy on a budget doesn’t have to be a chore. Higgs recently led one of the cooking demonstrations where about 10 people, including Perez, showed up.
“I like to make my food fun, and I get tired of food very easily,” Higgs told the group. “That’s why one of the reasons I’m trying to cook more in bulk and do a lot more freezes, so that I’m not eating the same thing literally the next day.”
Common Ground General Manager Jacqueline Hannah began offering the “Eating Healthy on a Budget” classes about three years ago. Hannah said the classes are designed to be convenient, even for people leading busy lives.
"People aren’t actually lazy. People do care about their food,” Hannah said. “They do care about their health. We’re told we don’t, but we have very crazy, busy lives. How are we going to fit in our lives? When we make it fit, we make it a time when they can come and get skills they want to use, they want to be there.”
The Common Ground Food Co-Op is expanding in the fall, and so are the courses. In a new area of the store, there will be more space for cooking classes – equipped with an oven, refrigerator, sinks, counter tops, and cabinets.
Meanwhile, a separate kitchen for the rest of the store will be located upstairs.
Hannah said she has been approached by dozens of people eager to share their knowledge. ”People can come in and teach classes on how to put healthy food in children’s diets; people who want to come in and talk about eating healthy with diabetes or learn about phytonutrients and why they matter,” Hannah said. “We’ve also been approached by people who want to make cheese, as well as roll your own sushi. So, it’s very diverse.”
Like any sort of home economics class, Common Ground’s teaching kitchen doesn’t have to be permitted by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. That’s because the food made there is meant to stay within the parameters of the class, and not be distributed to the general public.
Environmental Health Director Jim Roberts said one thing that’s missing from the cooking class is proper education about food-borne illnesses.
“For example, did you know cut melons are potentially a hazardous food? That they need to be handled carefully? So, you didn’t know that, but we know that,” Roberts said. “So, if someone wants to go in there and talk about how to make something with melons, they should be aware that melons are potentially hazardous food. They support the growth of pathogenic organisms, in this case salmonella.”
While Roberts wants to see his office have more of a role in public health education during cooking classes, he said there is also a need to provide a type of kitchen that can serve as a launching pad for entrepreneurs.
“I think people always have dreams of entering the food business and having this regulator permitted kitchen often times as a barrier. That’s why we encourage people to go to already permitted kitchens to get started,” Roberts said. “Once it takes off, just like how they have other incubator businesses, after a period of time you let them stand alone, and then bring other people in.”
A business incubator kitchen was the original intent of the Flatlander Food Foundry, a fund set up to raise money for such an effort in the area. But this year, that money was re-directed to the Common Ground Food Co-Op’s new teaching kitchen.
Common Ground’s General Manager Jacqueline Hannah said a business incubator kitchen is costly, and not in her plans at the moment. But she said long-term, it’s not off the table. “It’s something I’m interested in, Hannah said. "But we just didn’t see enough demand right now to go forward with that.”