UNITY, Maine — When George Gavitt of Thorndike carefully chopped and measured ingredients in a recent cooking class, he was the lone man in a roomful of women.
But Gavitt, 63, didn’t mind being a little bit different. The Cooking Matters for Adults class he has been taking at the Unity Community Center is friendly, inclusive and full of good ideas about how the participants can learn to make healthy meals on a budget. And that’s important to him and the rest of the participants.
“I’m relatively new to cooking,” he said, adding that his wife, who had been the family chef, has some health concerns and can no longer easily do that task. “If I want to eat good, I have to cook.”
He’s clearly in the right place. The kitchen at the community center is bustling with activity and full of delicious smells, as students chop chicken, saute diced onions and prepare basil and cilantro. They’re making white bean basil chicken chili, a healthy, economical recipe that also tastes great, according to Beth Chamberlain, the nutrition educator who is teaching the course.
“We cook whole foods from scratch and take the time to eat together,” she said. “It’s to learn how to stretch your food dollars.”
In Maine, Cooking Matters has been providing low-income people at risk of hunger with hands-on cooking and nutrition classes led by volunteer professional chefs and nutritionists since 2010. The classes are free and full of practical tips, and at the end of each class students receive a bag of groceries and recipes to try at home. Cooking Matters is provided through the Good Shepherd Food Bank, and classes are offered in every county with the help of partner programs including the Maine Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP-Ed. There have been more than 10,000 participants so far, according to Courtney Kennedy, the nutrition and education manager at Good Shepherd Food Bank.
“It’s really about teaching a man to fish, basically,” she said. “We’re giving people the food skills and information and knowledge to expand their food dollar. One of the things that blows me away is that myth that eating healthy is expensive. Cooking matters tries to break that down.”
She said the programs are offered in locations that have a high low-income population, or where at least 50 percent of the students in the school district qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“We don’t turn anybody away. We don’t ask people for income verification,” Kennedy said. “Really, anybody within a high-needs area can participate.”
Adults of any ages can participate in the classes, but in Unity most of the 13 people in the room appear to be in their 60s or older. Here, they learn about reading food labels, practice good knife skills and brainstorm ideas for eating smart when eating out. They discover ways to customize suggested recipes and strategies for shopping on a budget. And in addition to being educational and useful, the classes are often a lot of fun, Birmingham said.
“It’s fun to see them cook together, and laugh and joke,” she said. “The biggest thing about being an adult educator is that you learn from your participants. In this class, they’re amazing cooks. We’re teaching the basics of cooking, but I find I don’t always have to do that. They really have it down.”
As the chili simmered on the stove and a giant fruit salad came together for dessert, it was clear the students were enjoying themselves. Carolyn Wingate, 83, of Thorndike said she’s been learning a lot and laughing a lot, too.
“This has been a lot of fun. Everybody pitches in and everybody helps,” she said, adding that she would encourage older folks to sign up for the class if they can. “You’re never too old for anything.”
Last week, she and other participants learned to make turkey tacos, which were a big hit at home.
“My husband ate it,” Wingate said with a smile. “I didn’t think he would like it, but he did.”
Sandi Fernald, 61, of Unity said she has been loving all the new recipe ideas. Fernald, who proudly says she is on a weight loss journey and has lost 50 pounds over the last six months, is looking for new ideas.
Through Cooking Matters, she has sampled mangoes and the ugli fruit, an unusual-looking citrus fruit. She’s also learned about shopping the outside perimeter of the grocery store as a way to avoid the processed foods that are generally located in the center aisles.
“I came to this class for motivation and new food ideas,” she said. “Motivation for a healthier lifestyle and trying new fruits and vegetables.”
Betty Curtis, 68, of Unity said her reason for joining the class was straightforward.
“I cook kind of plain, every day— meat, potato and vegetables — because that’s how my husband likes to eat. I like to eat a lot of this stuff,” she said, gesturing at the recipe book. “But I don’t know how to make it.”