Becky Mares, 26, is passionate about food. She runs the Care and Share Cooking Matters Program and is dedicated to bringing healthy food and healthy food cooking ideas to local families. She is in charge of recruiting and training 65 volunteers for the program. Cooking Matters intends to empower families at risk of hunger with the skills, knowledge and confidence to make healthy and affordable meals and has received special recognition from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for excellence in nutrition education. Mares has run the local program since October 2009.
How did you become so passionate about food and nutrition?
When I was a sophomore in college, I spent a semester abroad in Costa Rica with a sustainable development program. We traveled around the country doing various field studies that focused on the intersection between community needs, ecosystem dynamics, and political-economic systems. Among those, we learned about agricultural production (such as bananas, coffee, and pineapple). I realized I had no idea where my food came from, so when I returned to college I started a community garden on campus. What is your goal for the Cooking Matters program at Care and Share?
Nearly one in four households with children in Colorado struggles to afford food for their families. The goal of Cooking Matters is to empower families at risk of hunger with the skills and knowledge to prepare healthy, affordable meals. We do this by partnering with community agencies to offer food-based nutrition education courses that are led by volunteer culinary and nutrition professionals. My goal is to address the increasing need for nutrition education by providing families in need with high-quality cooking courses that build long-term self-sufficiency skills.
What is your favorite part about running the Cooking Matters program?
Without doubt, my favorite part is interacting with participants during class. The courses are very hands-on, The teacher inside me treasures those “ah-ha!” moments when a participant masters a new skill or connects with a piece of information. I also thoroughly enjoy working with the volunteers who dedicate their time and expertise to the program. There is a wealth of knowledge in the culinary and nutrition fields, and every volunteer brings a different strength into the picture. I have facilitated over 25 courses, and I still learn something new every time. I strongly believe that no child should go hungry. Period.
What grocery shopping tips do you offer parents?
Read the nutrition labels and compare unit prices. Focus on the perimeter of the grocery store where most fresh foods are found. You will get the most from your dollar by cooking at home rather than eating out. Despite common perception that boxed dinners and fast food are the cheapest options, it is more cost-effective to cook from scratch at home. You also have more control over your portion sizes, choosing healthier ingredients and cooking techniques, and it engages the whole family. Purchasing fresher, less-processed products doesn’t have to be more expensive.
Childhood obesity, childhood hunger and children’s nutrition are big issues in the U.S. What is the No. 1 thing you wish all parents knew about children’s nutrition?
Kids need fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Whether fresh, frozen or canned, think about ways to incorporate more of these into your diet. Kids can be picky eaters, so it may take several tries before your child likes a certain food — keep trying. Have sliced apples, carrots or whole grain crackers on hand for a quick snack instead of chips, candy or soda. Get them involved in the kitchen, even if it’s just setting the table or washing dishes. Kids love taking ownership of projects, and the more involvement they have in the cooking process the more likely they are to try new dishes. Oh, and kids model their parents, so smile when you eat your veggies. If they see you enjoying healthy foods, they will too.
You’ve been a farmer’s assistant, planting and harvesting organic produce for food pantries; and you’ve built community gardens in other states, what brought you to Colorado Springs?
I am a Colorado native and grew up in Estes Park just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. I attended college in Tacoma, Wash. After a while, I missed the mountains and sunshine and decided to come back to Colorado. I applied for AmeriCorps and saw the position with Cooking Matters. The program sounded incredible, so I applied for and accepted the job and was placed in Colorado Springs.
If you had one wish in regards to food and nutrition, what would it be?
I would like to see a food system with more access to and affordability of fresh, local foods. Strong local economies build strong local communities and vice versa. We have drifted away from growing our own food and have lost the art of cooking at home — two revitalized trends which are sometimes perceived as ‘bourgeois.’ Everyone deserves to eat well, regardless of their socio-economic status.