Freshly chopped broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini simmered in tomato sauce as Katrina pulled back the skillet lid to stir in spiral pasta.
“People eat with their eyes,” Katrina said, noting the bright contrast of red, white and green in the winter Italian vegetable dish.
In the Cooking Arkansas class, Katrina and fellow participants gather each Thursday night in March to learn hands-on skills for healthy eating, nutrition and strategies to save money at the grocery store.
The class is hosted by the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service Crawford County Office in Van Buren.
The program is designed for adults in households that qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children benefits (WIC), free or reduced school lunches, Head Start or other nutrition assistance.
“This program has actually been around for 53 years,” said Keith Cleek, an Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program associate with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service in Little Rock. “For every dollar that the government spends for us to deliver our program, they save between $10 and $15 in healthcare costs.”
Cleek said over the last several years, people have started paying more attention to what goes in their food and have expressed more interest in hands-on meal preparation.
Before preparing ingredients and stirring up good meals during the second class of the month, the students learned how to utilize the information presented on nutrition labels.
Cleek and Chelsea White, program assistant for the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service Crawford County Office, led the group in discussing meal planning, calculating unit pricing and other strategies to save money.
“Planning meals – it’s going to save you time, it’s going to save you money,” White said. She also recommended finding substitutions for ingredients that may be missing on store shelves and creating a list before stepping into the store.
“Another good tip is, sometimes we think that buying in bulk is going to save us money and that depends,” White said. “… Even though it might have been a cheaper price, are you going to use it all? If you don’t use it all, it’s not worth buying in bulk.”
Everything from the store layout to advertising makes it harder for families to choose options that best benefit their health and budgets. Both educators and participants expressed their frustration with the added difficulties created by inflation and product shortages.
Cleek described how inflation is impacting all parts of the food system from businesses to consumers.
With higher fuel prices, “it’s costing them more to get the items into the store, so they have to pass the price off to the consumers,” Cleek said.
Food costs have risen dramatically with meats, poultry and fish increasing by 13% percent, dairy by 5.2% and fruits and vegetables by 7.6% over the past 12 months, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics food price index.
One participant said she has seen the price of a case of eggs increase by over $5.
After practicing knife skills and safety and learning about composting, the group split into two teams – one making fried rice with chicken and the other making winter Italian vegetables.
Each team gathered the ingredients and equipment from the back of the room and brought them to their respective stations. The participants then worked together, slicing vegetables, heating up rice and cooking eggs to make their meals.
As Kenna and Katrina poured chopped vegetables into a skillet for their pasta dish, they shared how the class allowed the friends to enjoy cooking.
“It’s something for us to do together, to learn and spend some time together,” Katrina said, adding that while she works as a cook, she has learned a lot in the class.
Soon the smell of delicious food wafted through the air, and the group came back together to enjoy their creations, along with an apple salad made by White.
The Cooking Arkansas class is one of many offerings at the Cooperative Extension Service Crawford County Office, including workshops on nutrition, finances and canning.
For more information on programs and resources, visit www.uaex.uada.edu/counties/crawford or call 479-474-5286.