When everyone can know, grow and eat healthy food, our community is stronger. So our volunteer chefs and nutritionists support nutrition education in schools, health clinics and community organizations throughout Washington state.
And as Cooking Matters volunteer instructor Melissa Miller points out, the act of coming together to cook is a kind of yeast that activates healthy community building. More than a clever program name for our 6-week cooking classes, it turns out that cooking really does matter.
“It is not just the food that matters, it is also the experience of cooking that matters and the experience of eating together that matters. If you are cooking together, then the eating experience is so much more meaningful,” says Melissa, who has led Cooking Matters classes since 2012.
A combination of nutrition ed, cooking skills, strategic shopping and cultural sharing, Cooking Matters classes are available for adults, families, teens and youth. Specialty classes focus on seniors and people living with diabetes. Melissa’s favorites are the family classes:
“I think that food is a really powerful tool for building community. And family is really powerful. And when you put those two powerful things together, it is like this explosion of beauty.”
In addition to volunteering with Solid Ground, Melissa works in administration at FareStart, a Seattle-based nonprofit which, according to their website, “provides homeless and disadvantaged people with the tools, training, and support services they need for lasting employment in food service and the culinary arts.”
Food & family
Melissa’s commitment to food is rooted in family. And her appetite for community building and social justice developed after she moved from California to attend Seattle University (SU).
“We weren’t the healthiest household when I grew up. We were very busy. Both my parents worked, so we ate a lot of processed foods. We didn’t really have time to do anything else,” Melissa says. “So we didn’t have set traditions for each holiday, but we always got together.
“Holidays were a time of the year when we had a bit more time together and my parents didn’t have to work, so we did do a lot of cooking together and playing around with different foods. We did Tamale Christmas, all kinds of weird things for Easter. Holidays were also the one time of the year we saw our extended family, so we got together and cooked with them. That was really fun.
“College offered a variety of super healthy options and a lot less processed foods,” Melissa recalls. I started eating healthier and I wasn’t driving. I did a lot more walking — and I lost a lot of weight. I got attached to the idea of using food as a tool for me.”
Melissa later moved into a house with a bunch of folks who had traveled on an SU program to India together. She says, “We were all super excited about food. We had weekly house dinners where we invited a bunch of people over and everybody would get together and cook. It was like a huge tool for building a community for us. This was seven or eight years ago, and there are still people that I see regularly. We still get together to cook. We still get together to eat.”
While at SU, she volunteered for a class assignment with the Social Justice Fund (SJF), a foundation working on the front lines of social change.
“I had some really incredible mentors at the Social Justice Fund,” Melissa says. “Bookda Gheisar is amazing; she is this beautiful, powerful woman, who it was really exciting to be around. Zeke Spier was my boss at that time — one of the smartest people I know, and one of the best mentors. He was very intentional about the way that he taught me to do my job.”
Food & community
Eventually her volunteering turned into employment at SJF, and later she made the decision to enter Pastry School. And she sought a way to share her passion for food and community.
“I intended to go into pastry professionally. Part of what I discovered when I started working at SJF while I was in school was I didn’t really like that environment that much. There are a lot of bakeries and restaurants here that really do tie food into a social justice mission in a meaningful way. But [FareStart] is still a for-profit, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted that environment.
“Cooking Matters is the highlight of my week; every week I get to do it. It is exciting to be a part of giving something of myself, but also I take so much from it. I have never not learned something in a class from the participants. It is not just me sharing, it is all of us sharing together,” Melissa says. “They all love talking to each other, too. So I get to experience building community through food both from the sharing point of view and watching it happen, and being shared with. That really pushes me to do it even when sometimes it is hard for me!”
One of the recipes that Melissa shares with every class is Black Bean Brownies. “It always makes me really happy” to make this recipe, she says, “because it is a food that I love, that I can have as a treat and also be healthy. I’m a fiend for the spicy/sweet flavor combination — so when I make them myself, I usually add cinnamon and chili powder to spice them up, but they’re super delicious without.”
Field trips to grocery stores provide a lot of aha! moments for class participants, especially around the significant price differences between packaged foods and unpackaged foods in the produce section.
Practical knowledge & skills
“A lot of people also get really excited to hear that at most grocery stores, their butchers will actually break down a chicken that you are about to purchase for you. Buying a whole chicken is intimidating if you’ve never broken it down before, but you don’t actually have to learn. You just hand it to the butcher and say, ‘Hey can you cut this up for me?’ and they do it!”
Through the six-week program, participants often share newfound excitement for cooking with family members and use new information and skills.
“A group was talking about how they’ve gone home and used so many more spices, because a lot of them were very salt-sensitive.” Melissa remembers, “We talked a lot about substituting spices to get flavor in, rather than using a whole bunch of salt to pull out flavor from the food you are making. They were really excited that they could play with whatever spices they wanted. And there was a handout that we gave them about how you could substitute spices if you did not have this particular thing.
“Because this is such a food-focused city, people are using food in powerful positive ways,” Melissa says. “And even though we don’t talk about it in explicit terms in our classes, Cooking Matters feels like a direct way to be involved in food justice work.”
Visit our Volunteer webpage to learn about Cooking Matters and other volunteer opportunities with Solid Ground.