Windham residents learn that 'Cooking Matters'

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Tue., Dec. 17, 2013
Lizmarie Gomez-Garcia (front) and Yolanda Ramirez gather around a table of treats during a Cooking Matters graduation celebration held at the Windham Heights Community Center on Dec. 13. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Lizmarie Gomez-Garcia (front) and Yolanda Ramirez gather around a table of treats during a Cooking Matters graduation celebration held at the Windham Heights Community Center on Dec. 13. Photos by Melanie Savage.

It was obvious that the women (and one man) gathered at the Windham Heights Community Learning Center on Dec. 13 were having a wonderful time. They spoke mostly in Spanish, and there was much laughter, good-natured ribbing and a generally warm, welcoming atmosphere in the room. The group had been meeting for eight weeks, for two hours per week, under the tutelage of Dianisi Torres, from Cooking Matters. Dec. 13 marked their graduation celebration.

Cooking Matters is part of the No Kid Hungry national initiative. “Our goal in bringing Cooking Matters to Connecticut is to assist individuals in providing healthful meals to their families, despite what limited resources they may have,” said Tressa Spears Jackson, executive director of the Community Health Network Foundation.

The Windham public school system has been offering Cooking Matters classes for some time within the district. But this was the first class to meet at Windham Heights. “This is the largest group [Torres] has had,” said Teresa Diaz, a family liaison officer for Windham public schools.

Class participants learn how to safely handle food. They learn to read nutritional labels, so that they’re better able to make healthy choices for their families. They're taught to shop smarter, learning ways to stretch their grocery dollars. And they learn to make healthy substitutions when they cook, with an eye especially toward lessening the propensity for culturally-prevalent diseases which, according to Diaz, include diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease in the Latino population. They’re encouraged to replace white flour with whole wheat. "Dianisi taught them to look for whole wheat as the first ingredient," said Diaz. "If whole wheat is not the first ingredient, it's not a healthy enough choice."

Class members learned a number of healthy recipes, and had prepared them in class with Torres. Then, they‘d been provided with the tools needed to go and replicate the meals at home. Recipes had included healthy breakfast burritos and turkey burgers. For graduation, students prepared healthy macaroni and cheese, with the addition of nutrient-rich broccoli. “A lot of it is about adding vegetables in,” said Diaz.

Class participants are encouraged to break the habit of frying foods. “I show them how to bake instead,” said Torres. Torres said that the Cooking Matters program works. “It’s been proven that 95 percent of the participants increase their fruit and vegetable intakes,” she said, “as well as lowering their fat and milk intake.”

A case in point was graduate Ana Negron, who said that she didn’t eat any vegetables or fruits before entering the program, and drank soda instead of water. “She said she eats fruits and vegetables three times a week now,” said Diaz, interpreting for Negron. “And she drinks five cups of water per day. She said she has completely replaced soda with water,” added Diaz. “Except on special occasions.”

“We have a real commitment to making sure our kids are healthy. A healthy, well-fed child obviously learns better, as well,” said Kerry Markey, communications officer for Windham public schools.

There is another Cooking Matters class for adults scheduled to begin at Windham Heights on Jan. 10. There is a class ongoing for teens at Windham High School, on Tuesdays from 2:30 to 5 p.m. A class for adults will begin at Windham Middle School on March 6. And a class for families is scheduled to begin at Windham High School on Wednesdays, beginning on April 2. Anyone interested in participating should contact the family liaison at his/her student’s school.

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