NORTHBOROUGH, Mass. — "Who here ate breakfast this morning?" asks Algonquin Nutrition and Culinary Arts teacher Susan Halpin, directing her question to the 10 individuals sitting around the table with her. Most raise their hands, though a few shake their head.
"I was late for work this morning," says a man to Halpin’s left.
"I had the same thing for breakfast that I've had for years," says a woman next to him. "Oatmeal." Sometimes, she says, she adds fruit.
It’s Tuesday evening, Week Five of a six-week cooking and healthy-eating class being held in the basement of the Northborough Historical Society building. Run by the Northborough Food Pantry, the class is aimed primarily at low-income adults who are regular patrons.
For food pantry co-director Sarah Rothery, the program helps get the most out of a limited supply of donations.
"We’re giving out food as our stores allow," she says. "This is a way to stretch the use of the food and make it more fun for the families."
Tuesday’s class is all about breakfast. While Halpin talks about ways to make the most important meal of the day healthier — such as making your own yogurt instead of eating the processed, store-bought version — volunteer chef Paula McCarthy is in the kitchen preparing ingredients for the class’s hands-on portion.
"This is the most fun you can have, cooking with people," McCarthy says as she pan-fries some green vegetables (like any good cooking show, she prepares her finish products ahead of time). "These people make it very easy to do this."
No stranger to the kitchen, McCarthy works as a chef at Amici Trattoria in Shrewsbury. But she loves volunteering in her chosen field, having participated in various Save Our Strength programs over the years. “I’m a ‘No Kid Hungry’ chef,” she says.
On the menu this evening is a truly complete breakfast: Frittatas, an Italian dish similar to a baked omelet; whole wheat blueberry muffins; and peanut butter-and-banana pockets.
The lessons bear less resemblance to a traditional cooking class than they do to a family gathering in the kitchen before the holidays. Indeed, Rothary says, as the lessons have progressed, that’s exactly what this class has become.
"They’ve kind of formed a social group now," she says.
As they follow McCarthy’s instruction, class members trade jokes, tell stories and share cooking tips they've learned from their own families.
It quickly becomes clear that these students aren’t beginners. "Most of these folks have cooked for families for a long time," McCarthy says. "We’re just expanding their horizons."
The areas where they, like many Americans, need the most help is shopping. And that’s where Halpin comes in. She describes how during a previous class the whole group took a field trip to the supermarket where they were given a simple challenge: cook a healthy meal for a family with $10 or less.
The challenge forced them to not only aggressively pursue sales, but to also consider new ingredients for familiar recipes. In one example, Halpin says, class members substituted beans as a cheaper alternative to meat.
The class also effectively re-learned how to walk through a grocery store. "You walk in and go to the produce section," McCarthy says. "You walk to the back and there are the meats. You walk around and there’s the dairy." The middle of the store is the dangerous part, she says, containing expensive and unhealthy processed foods.
This exercise worked so well that Halpin plans to try something similar for her students in her "Senior Survival" course at Algonquin. She admits to borrowing Cooking Matters lessons whenever she can, lauding them for their effectiveness.
In fact, the Cooking Matters website sites a 2007 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, which found that the food choices and budgeting practices tended to improve among those who participated in the program.
That’s more than good enough for Mary Pat Gibbons, who works for Congressman Jim McGovern in his Marlborough office, and who came down to see the class first-hand.
"We’re very interested in hearing how we can be helpful," she says. "I think this is out of this world to have a group like this."
Plus, it’s hard to turn down a free cooking lesson.
"What’s that sauce you’re using?" she asks a woman who is filling a baking pan for her frittatas.
"That’s the eggs."
"Well, you learn something new every day."