My Experiences as a Cooking Matters Volunteer with the Oregon Food Bank

By Becky A. Johnson, OHSU Dietetic Intern; Intern at Oregon State WIC Office

Combining my interest in nutrition education with a desire to help my community, in 2013 I started volunteering with the Cooking Matters program at the Oregon Food Bank.  Cooking Matters is a nationwide program that addresses hunger and food insecurity through a 6-week cooking and nutrition education course and through grocery store tours.

My first volunteer role was as “shopper” for a class at Independent Living Resources (ILR) in NW Portland. ILR provides services and training to people with disabilities to improve self-sufficiency. One of our participants was a young woman who had recently lost her sight and was trying to relearn skills to help her live on her own again. I am still amazed by her knife skills and the speed at which she was able to prep meals.

Shoppers are given around $600 in gift cards to buy groceries for the entire 6 weeks of the class. Not only are you shopping for in class meals to feed participants and volunteers each week, each participant (up to 15 in a class) receives a bag of groceries to take home to prepare the week’s featured recipe for family members. Needless to say you become rather skilled in finding the best deals on groceries in order to fall within your food budget. Participants are always eager to hear how much a meal cost, and are always impressed by the awesome meals that can be prepared for under $1.50 per serving. Being a shopper is also a great way to promote the work of Oregon Food Bank to other grocery shoppers, especially when the person in line behind you inquires why you are buying 20 eggplants.

After being the shopper for classes at Multnomah County Health Department and Oregon Child Development Coalition, I decided I was ready to try my hand as Chef Instructor. While many chef instructor volunteers are professional chefs, you definitely don’t need to be one in order to lead a class – in fact I learned most of my cooking skills from previous Cooking Matters courses! The best way I can describe the Chef Instructor role is as the class choreographer. He or she decides what’s on the menu for the week, plans the lesson, and keeps the team on track because there’s a lot to cover in a 2-hour period. The participants and other volunteers do the rest.

Cooking Matters uses a facilitated dialogue model to teach cooking and nutrition education to its participants. Each week’s lesson has a theme, such as MyPlate, whole grains, or healthy fats. In facilitated dialogue participants learn from each other and are free to ask questions. From my experience, participants have lots of nutrition-related questions. Often there’s a registered dietitian on the volunteer team who can answer tough nutrition questions based on scientific knowledge.

Interested in volunteering? It’s typically a 3-5 hour/week commitment for a 7-week period and well worth your time.

Interested in taking a course? If you’re already receiving WIC or SNAP benefits, you will likely be eligible to enroll. Some classes are also open to children and families, or are geared especially to people with diabetes.

For volunteer or enrollment questions, contact OFB’s Cooking Matters Coordinator, Eddie Arellano at or 503-583-8735.

Also be sure to check out Cooking Matters’ great selection of recipes. I make them at home all the time and especially recommend the vegetable lasagna, pumpkin muffins, and mango salsa.

Posted on November 30, 2016 .