Every year as fall and spring roll around, 15 women meet at Wesley-Rankin Community Center for a cooking class where they learn how to create healthy meals.
At the end of each class, the women take home several ingredients so they can recreate those same recipes with their families. Though the ingredients change with each class, one ingredient in particular remains a staple of the cooking course: newfound confidence in the kitchen.
La Cocina Alegre (Happy Kitchen) provides West Dallas women a hands-on culinary and nutritional education that they otherwise may not have had access to. Many face socioeconomic challenges when trying to feed their families a nutritious meal. However, the curriculum at La Cocina Alegre is proving that eating healthy doesn’t have to cost more.
The classes are provided by GROW North Texas, a nonprofit dedicated to connecting North Texans with local and sustainable resources that inspire a healthy lifestyle. While Happy Kitchen and its curriculum stemmed from the Sustainable Food Center in Austin, members of GROW North Texas quickly discovered that certain pockets of the Dallas community could also benefit from community cooking classes.
“These women keep coming back because they want to learn more,” said Susie Marshall, executive director of Happy Kitchen. “It’s more than food that they’re taking home; there’s something more compelling.”
Each class follows a specific cookbook and is always led by a trained facilitator who was previously a student in the program. Marshall and her team wanted to ensure that facilitators come from the same community and relate to the women taking the classes.
“They appreciate being led by clear and patient women who are similar to them because it creates a comfortable environment to ask questions,” explained Amanda Whatley, program designer and facilitator.
The classes include a segment focused on nutrition and interactive activities such as reading labels, milk tastings, and understanding sugar and salt. The women then prepare a recipe based on the topics discussed earlier. At the end of class they reflect on their plans to modify recipes for their own families.
“It’s been a powerful thing for the women to have an opportunity to say that they want to learn more about feeding their children or their husband who has diabetes,” Marshall said.
The team at GROW North Texas uses donations to purchase cookbooks, food, and cooking utensils so that women can focus on learning and having fun in the kitchen. The team always makes a conscious effort to purchase supplies from places where students shop, making it easier for them to keep up their new habits outside the classroom.
Since the classes began in 2013, the program has evolved into more than cooking. Recently, Happy Kitchen began a community garden class to continue education in sustainability practices.
“The way we approach our program is from the bottom up,” Marshall said. “There’s no huge numbers, it’s much more about the people.”
Not only are Happy Kitchen students taking initiative to improve their eating habits, they’re also taking ownership of the education they want to receive.
The group recently decided to change the program name to Cocinando Tu Vida, or “cooking with your life,” because they felt that the classes left an impact that went beyond the kitchen.
“I encourage people to not always look for the flash or big programs, look and see who is on the ground and in the community doing the work,” Marshall said.
Learn more: visit grownorthtexas.org.