Tatyana Bistrevsky passes around a bowl of rendered fat she’s drained from a skillet of ground beef. It’s pure saturated fat and cholesterol, the stuff that clogs your arteries, she tells her students in Russian.
The women peer into the bowl and wrinkle their noses. In Russia, Bistrevsky said, they would never throw away this fat.
She’s trying to teach her students a new way of cooking, a healthier way to feed their families, even on a limited food budget.
The class is part of Food Sense, a nutrition program that works in conjunction with Washington State University Cooperative Extension and Second Harvest Food Bank to help lower-income families make better food choices and ensure they have enough food to last all month.
Food Sense classes have logged more than 1,600 clients since October 2005. Most participants are recruited from the line at area food distribution centers. There are more than 20 classes per month, held in community centers and church basements, anywhere there is running water and space to set up chairs for the students.
At every meeting there is a cooking demonstration and samples for lunch. Students receive kitchen advice, such as how to tell when food has gone bad and how to read nutrition labels, and recipes to help them turn the groceries they get from the food bank into a meal.
Sometimes the clients receive ingredients they don’t know how to use, like canned salmon or eggplant.
“They would use it if someone would just tell them how,” said Brandi Anderson, program coordinator for Food Sense.
For a while, Second Harvest was inundated with dry milk powder. It tasted awful, no one would drink it, and it kept getting redonated back to the food bank.
So Anderson and her partner, Rhonda Hause, revised their recipes. Instead of drinking it, they advise their clients to use it for cooking. Put the powdered milk in scrambled eggs, French toast, or soups, and save the fresh milk for drinking.
The ideas caught on. So did the recipe for Magic Mix, a homemade mixture of milk powder, flour and salt. It eliminated the need for Bisquick, cake mixes and other expensive packaged food that Food Sense client Roberta Lindner used to buy. She has 13 grandchildren and does a lot of baking.
Lindner has been attending the cooking classes since they began two years ago, and said it has helped her stretch her food dollars.
“They show me how I can save money by using the products I have on hand,” she said.
Going to the classes also means that the clients receive extra groceries, mostly fresh produce and perishables that Second Harvest can’t keep in storage.
Anderson and Hause haul vanloads of food to their classes each day. One Friday morning at the Salvation Army in Spokane, they brought potatoes, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, romaine lettuce, milk and bread, enough for all 22 clients.
Becky Tsoumpas said that she has picked up some recipes from the class. Cheesy Spaghetti is always a hit, and she likes the homemade version of Rice-a-Roni she learned to make. She puts dinner on the table every evening at 5, but her three teenage kids are ready for a second feeding by 8.
For snacks, they eat cottage cheese, yogurt and fruit she gets from Food Sense. She can’t tell them not to eat too much, she said, because it’s good for them.
“It would be rough,” she said, if it weren’t for the supplemental food she receives at the class. Going to the food bank once per month, the limit for each family, isn’t enough in her household. But she can attend all the Food Sense classes held in her ZIP code to help pad her food budget.
According to client surveys, one-third of participants have run out of food every month for the past year.
They also report that they use less instant food and have started to eat healthier meals since taking the classes. And they’ve been able to eat more fresh produce, and learned to freeze fruits and vegetables to save them for next week.
Bistrevsky’s Russian students say they add less salt to their food and have started eating more balanced meals after taking her six-class series.
“A lot of people are too proud to go to the food bank,” said Anderson. But sometimes they’re more willing to attend a class, learn about cooking and nutrition, and leave with a box of fresh produce and other groceries.
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