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Cooking Classes Help Cancer Survivors, Low-Income Families Stay Healthy

Good nutrition is essential to staying healthy, but pulling it off on a tight budget — or when you’re sick — can be tough. And that’s when it’s even more important.

So the Tarrant Area Food Bank offers free Cooking Matters classes that teach affordable nutrition to low income families and cancer survivors.

One whole class of students is chopping and dicing. It's the last of six evening classes spread over as many weeks at Fort Worth’s Cancer Care Services near downtown.

All eight of the students are cancer survivors or work with people fighting the disease. For this class, they’re also competing against a clock. Cooking Matters assistant Lauren Hickman describes the contest. 

"Tonight's challenge," Hickman says, "is a combination of my mother-in-law just called and I have to have dinner ready for her in 30 minutes combined with some kind of Iron Chef challenge."

The students are ready. Among them is Debbie Belt, who credits the course for helping her save money and eat better at home. Both were priorities for the blood cancer survivor.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Debbie Belt (glasses) is one of eight students who recently completed the Cooking Matters classes in Fort Worth's Cancer Care Services. The course restored her kitchen confidence.

"It was a very rare angiosarcoma, so it was pretty serious," Belt said. "This was in 2015. I was given six months to a year to live, and it went into remission and I'm still here."

Overall health from good nutrition can be essential when battling cancer. For decades, Cooking Matters has been a national program targeting low-income families who can benefit from affordable nutrition. But it works well for cancer patients like Belt, whose treatments can zap nutrients needed to get better. That's why Katrina White is here, too.

"Having had a survivor, I wanted to learn some new skills to improve my chances of not getting cancer again," White said.

She's picked up all the basics —  how to cut down on sugar and salt, how to use whole grains and lean protein while still making something tasty. And this cheese trick.

"I learned how to stretch the dollars," White said, "by not over-using too much cheese and using sharp cheese. It stimulates my palate better so now I don't need as much of it."  

White says she has already applied other techniques at home.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Katrina White (hat) is a cancer survivor who's picked up a lot of money saving healthy tips she says is improving life. . . and her meals.

"I didn’t realize I can take oatmeal and grind it up and make my own l oatmeal flour," White said. "That's budget-conscious, and that's something that I learned from the class, and I ground up my oatmeal flour and I made the oatmeal cookies."

Cooking Matters instructor Kathie Robinson says the curriculum is designed to deliver top nutrition at low cost. For this Cancer Care crowd, she offers additional advice.

"If somebody's having nausea, things that are hot — you know hot foods have a lot of smell and that can make the nausea worse — so sticking more with the cool foods is a better choice," Robinson said.

Making the best food choices overall and how to gain confidence in the kitchen is what this class is about, says Connie Jones, Cooking Matters coordinator for the Tarrant Area Food Bank.

"A lot of people, they're not taught how to cook because most people, they come to the class, and they say, 'You know, they can’t do that.' Well in our classes, they can do it," Jones said.

The secret to applying these lessons at home every week may come down to taste. Eaters have long complained too often that healthy means unpalatable. But Cooking Matters volunteer  Burt Chance knows better. For years he's been perfecting the library of recipes he learned here. One even took home a prize.

"I've actually sauteed up carrots and chard and celery and thrown it in chili, just to make my chili a bit healthier and such. I came in 2nd in a chili contest at work because I snuck it in the chili," Chance said.

Whatever is cooking, research shows the vast majority of Cooking Matters graduates keep using the lessons they've learned every day. For some of the Fort Worth cancer survivors, that makes continued recovery taste even better.   


Tarrant County Food Bank Cooking Matters

Schedule of classes

Share Our Strength Cooking Matters site

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.