How do you create a sense of community during a time of profound social isolation? For Solid Ground’s Community Food Education (CFE) team, it’s been a creatively challenging year of trying new ways to engage people in their cooking and nutrition classes – normally held at housing sites, community health clinics, and community organizations – as they took the show on the road virtually.
Neo Mazur, CFE Program Manager, reflects back on the early days when the pandemic first hit: “We had a lot of thinking and adjusting to do. Our bread and butter for classes has been doing things hands-on and getting people to practice the skills in person – and also, building community through cooking together.”
For almost 30 years, CFE has nurtured good health for thousands of community members via cooking and nutrition classes for adults, kids, and families living on low incomes. As Washington state partner of the national Cooking Matters program, CFE classes focus on healthy and affordable recipes, kitchen safety and hygiene, and food prep skills – aiming to use recipes that cost less than $10 for six servings.
So in March 2020, the CFE team had to get creative – and fast! – to connect with families when in-person classes were suddenly not possible. Neo says, “We were trying to figure out, ‘What do people need right now?’ Out of this brainstorming, Cooking Matters at Home came to life.
Meeting people where they are: HOME
“There are more people cooking at home than ever before, and there are a lot more people receiving food from food banks or just living on tighter budgets. So the first thing we did was think about sharing some basic skills and recipes people can use to cook at home, and tried to focus on lower-cost items or things people would be able to find at food banks,” Neo recalls.
CFE Partnerships Coordinator Gina Lee says, “It’s been quite the process, translating that in-person, hands-on, skills-learning, community-building into virtual.” Initially, people weren’t familiar with Zoom.
“We piloted so many ways to engage – so many ways of asking folks to practice certain skills, finding ways to have accountability – while also being understanding of people’s lives and new routines.”
Shana McCann, CFE Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator, emphasizes that the beauty of in-person classes is “we are all cooking together.” When things went virtual, they had to “be more imaginative about how that looks” when not actually sharing a meal together. Finding participants was also a challenge. Collaborating with housing sites, CFE recruited people interested in taking their classes.
From distanced demos to cooking ‘together’
Initially, Neo says, “The classes were truly a demonstration, so people could cook along if they wanted, but there wasn’t the interaction or asking people, ‘What does this look like now at your home?’ Nobody was on video.” Later, they did have everyone “participate in all of the steps.”
This led to much more interaction. Gina says, “We try to model the level of engagement we want out of participants. So whenever we ask a question and there is a little bit of silence, Shana or myself will jump in and answer but keep it open for participants to jump in. We leave a lot of space for people to talk – and participants really enjoy it.”
Adapting to present the cooking and nutrition classes virtually made it essential for the CFE team to get more tech savvy. Early in the process, Gina and Shana were getting used to their tech setups, balancing laptops on stacks of cookbooks, and using borrowed tripods to get the right angles.
On a coworker’s recommendation to make the class more like a cooking show, they started using multiple cameras to show different angles while cooking. With that tip, Gina set up her laptop right on the edge of her sink so there was a full view of her countertop, with the video camera across the kitchen by her stove.
Some Cooking Matters at Home Virtual Class Videos
Black Bean Burgers
Neo adds that, “Throughout the classes, we have been getting feedback from the participants as well as from our site partners on how the class is going – how we can better engage people. And between every series, we modify the way we deliver the class.”
Shana says, “It is a community space in a socially isolated time. It’s been cool to have people come together, cook, build community, and make food together. It’s fun to have people share along in the process too: ‘Where are people at with chopping their onions?’ and having people give a thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways. People actually bring their computers or their phones over to show us – so it feels a lot more like cooking in person, which is what the goal was for us – to have that community feel.”
Rewriting negative food narratives
The CFE team weaves Solid Ground’s anti-racism and anti-oppression values into all classes, both in-person and virtually. In shifting to the virtual world, Neo says, “We’ve had to really reimagine the way we deliver a lot of the curriculum, and that has given us space to also imagine how can we better live into that anti-racism commitment. We provide more historic context – talk about the systems at play that make it so people are unable to access healthy, quality food – and bring participants into those conversations.”
“We have the power to reimagine the world and create the world that we want to live in. And we have the power to meet our own community’s needs, because we know what we need. Recognizing that even as things have been so hard, people’s ability to still recognize their own power and their own agency is something that gives me a lot of hope.” ~Neo Mazur, CFE Program Manager
Shana adds, “We start off class with a question like, ‘What does it mean to be healthy? How do we redefine that? How is that influenced by our society, culture, and all these systems?’” Gina says, “We’ve been looking for recipes from authors of color and imagining other ways of understanding health and what that cuisine looks like.”
CFE encourages people to share their celebratory, family, cultural, and comfort food recipes to honor who each person is and the unique gifts they each bring to class.
Shana explains, “One thing we try to emphasize is that there is not one right way to be healthy. People are the experts in their own lives. We try to highlight recipes from all over the world, so people get excited about trying out new things and being more creative.” They also have space “to rewrite their own relationships with food.”
Neo is encouraged by our communities’ collective coming together in response to the pandemic: “We have the power to reimagine and create the world that we want to live in – and we have the power to meet our community’s needs. Even as things have been so hard, people’s ability to recognize their own power and agency is something that gives me a lot of hope.”
Want to host Cooking Matters at your site? Contact Gina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog post is based on interviews that led to this Cooking Matters at Home video.
Cooking Matters at Home
Solid Ground’s Community Food Education (CFE) program hosts cooking and nutrition classes to support healthy and holistic living on a budget. The CFE team posts recipes and cooking videos to offer resources, tips, and tricks that you can practice at home. Visit our Food & Nutrition webpage for more info and resources.