Sharing God’s love—and the kitchen, too

One church’s experience with Cooking Matters

By Kay Brockwell
Special Contributor

St. Paul United Methodist Church Jonesboro takes seriously Jesus’ admonition to “feed my sheep.”

The church, with its neighbor, St. Mark’s Episcopal, has operated the Two Saints Kitchen free Saturday noon meal program for more than five years, with volunteers from the two churches cooking for, transporting and feeding about 60 people weekly. It also supports the Neighbors Helping Neighbors food pantry and the Salvation Army homeless shelter.

And for six weeks early this fall, it opened its kitchen and family life center to local residents who wanted to learn how to cook healthy meals on a budget, through the Cooking Matters class sponsored by the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and the United Methodists of Arkansas’s 200,000 Reasons campaign.

Why does the church do it? Speaking as a member of the congregation, I believe we do it because we’re Methodists! We love a potluck, and we’ll break bread together at any provocation. When I learned about Cooking Matters, it just seemed to me to be a great way to spread the love of God and help our community at the same time.

Students in a Cooking Matters class held at First UMC Little Rock practice their knife skills under the supervision of local chef Cash Ashley. PHOTO COURTESY OF ARKANSAS HUNGER RELIEF ALLIANCE

Students in a Cooking Matters class held at First UMC Little Rock practice their knife skills under the supervision of local chef Cash Ashley.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ARKANSAS HUNGER RELIEF ALLIANCE

The inaugural effort, funded by a grant from the Conference, took six students through the six-week course. Each Wednesday night, a team of volunteers and the students held a quick lesson on some facet of shopping or cooking; then they cooked a meal together, ate, and cleaned up the kitchen together. Each participant received a homework assignment each week: Prepare a recipe from their Cooking Matters book, using a church-provided gift card from a local grocery store to purchase the ingredients.

The program suggests pre-purchasing the ingredients and giving them to students each week in a take-home bag. We tried that for the first week, but because we hadn’t been certain of how many students we would have, we wound up purchasing too much. One of the volunteers, Steven Henley, came up with the gift card idea as a substitute, and that worked well.

Students were able to choose a recipe in the book that appealed to them, and then come back and report on their project to the class. Sometimes it was to say, “Don’t cook this; it’s awful,” or to suggest some changes in a recipe, and I think that gave people more exposure to different things they may not have cooked before.

When I learned about the Cooking Matters program from my friend Kathy Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, I immediately started thinking about how to implement it at St. Paul. I went online and learned all I could about the program, and talked to the folks at the Alliance, and then I started to talk to people at church about it. When I approached our pastor, the Rev. Charles Sigman, he told me, “It’s great. Let’s do it.”

We indicated our interest to the Hunger Relief Alliance, and just a month or so later, the Arkansas Conference of the UMC contacted me to ask if the church would like to try conducting a class using a grant from the Conference to defray the expenses.

That request sure sounded like God speaking to us. It was time to quit talking about it, and start doing it.

After a couple of false starts—we had to learn how best to publicize the classes and attract students—the classes got under way immediately after Labor Day.

Cooking Matters is one program supported by the Arkansas Conference’s 200,000 Reasons to Fight Childhood Hunger initiative. To bring Cooking Matters to your community, contact Mary Lewis Dassinger, 200,000 Reasons project coordinator, at mdassinger@arumc.org.

Cooking Matters is one program supported by the Arkansas Conference’s 200,000 Reasons to Fight Childhood Hunger initiative. To bring Cooking Matters to your community, contact Mary Lewis Dassinger, 200,000 Reasons project coordinator, at mdassinger@arumc.org. 

We distributed fliers via the local food pantry and Two Saints Kitchen, as well as sending them home with students who are in the backpack food program sponsored by one of St. Paul’s Sunday School classes. We ran notices in the newspaper and public service announcements on local TV, and put fliers at other locations, including the public library. (For our next class, we plan to walk the neighborhood near the church with fliers, inviting people to participate, and to post notices at neighborhood businesses.)

A team of volunteers assembled each Wednesday to teach and cook. The flow of questions and answers back and forth between participants and volunteers opened up many new, inexpensive meal options for participants.

“We heard about the classes when we went to the food pantry because we were going through a tough time,” one student said. “We thought it sounded like a great idea. It’s really been a blessing to me to learn how to cook some new, healthy meals cheaply.” Her husband, she noted, is diabetic and has high blood pressure, so learning how to use healthy proteins and whole grains was a big help.

Students also learned some new techniques. One night’s dinner of chicken cooked with cumin, coriander and cinnamon got raised eyebrows as it was being prepared, but students agreed that, served with rice and mixed vegetables, the unfamiliar flavor profile made a good change of pace in a weekly menu plan.

The classes heavily emphasize menu planning and careful shopping, as well as using tips and techniques for stretching more expensive ingredients like meat. For example, substituting half the ground beef in a Mexican casserole recipe with black beans cuts the cost of the dish significantly, with little difference in flavor or nutritional value. “Recycling” the leftovers from a chuck roast or roasted chicken into a different dish means getting more meals for the dollar with more variety, as well.

But best of all was the opportunity to put the church’s love of God to work in a very practical way. As volunteer Donna Walpole explained it, “The people who came to that class are the people God wanted to come to that class, because he wanted us to minister to them. And that’s what we did.”

Brockwell, an enthusiastic home cook and member of UMC Jonesboro, has a long history of involvement in hunger ministries, including Two Saints Kitchen and Cooking Matters.