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“PBS NewsHour Weekend” Feature: Cooking Matters at Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance

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  • Jennifer Gibson
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While healthy food can have a high financial cost, unhealthy food can cost a person’s physical wellbeing. Faced with a plethora of unhealthy food options, people on small budgets and without nutrition education can unwittingly make choices that negatively affect their health. The combination of high calories, flavors people enjoy and even crave, and low nutritional value can lead to obesity. Some people are more at risk than others, like those who live in “food deserts,” which are places with few healthy and affordable food options, and people who don’t have the knowledge to make better choices.

This is where Cooking Matters comes in. It is a six-week course that teaches nutrition and culinary skills, as well as how to shop in food deserts, to people with lower incomes and smaller food budgets.

The Cooking Matters program has been active nationwide for over 20 years. The classes began in Arkansas about five years ago through Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, a non-profit attempting to end food insecurity in the state. Rachel Townsend, the director of Cooking Matters at Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance says the program now has roughly 150 partners and estimates that there are 40-50 classes each year around the state.

According to the data, it’s working. Dr. Tracey Barnett, assistant professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) is the principal investigator analyzing Cooking Matters data. According to Barnett, while the data is not ready to be published, she can say that the participants’ knowledge, behavior and self-efficacy regarding nutrition are “ … significantly changing for the better.”

UARK Dietetics Students for Cooking Matters

On Jan. 23, a new set of students will begin these classes with the help Partners for Inclusive Communities at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), a program with the mission to improve the health of people with disabilities in the state. These students have disabilities that can make cooking more difficult. For example, someone with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder which affects muscle control and coordination, might have difficulty chopping or mixing, and a person with an intellectual disability might have trouble reading or understanding cooking instructions. The new classes will incorporate items like easy-to-understand pictures and color-coding, as well as adapted cooking utensils, such as rolling knives.

Sarah Keathley, a registered dietitian with Partners for Inclusive Communities, has been modifying the courses for people with disabilities to not only take but to teach as well. “We are recruiting people with disabilities to actually teach these classes. So we want them to be involved in their own classes and also in the community. So a dietitian will be assisting them, along with culinary instructors, but primarily the people with disabilities will be teaching the cooking classes.” This class will be the first of its kind in Arkansas. Keathley says it will begin in Central Arkansas, and then expand throughout the state.

Partners for Inclusive Communities Report

The hope is that the classes will improve the staggering rate of obesity among people with disabilities. Partners for Inclusive Communities at UAMS released a report in 2015 that analyzed the health of people with developmental disabilities in Arkansas in 2005. The report states that Arkansans with developmental disabilities had a 64.7 percent obesity rate, more than double the rate for obesity in the general population, which was 25.5 percent.

The first class will begin Jan. 23 in Little Rock. People who would like to join a Cooking Matters for people with disabilities or who would like to bring a class to their neighborhood can contact Sarah Keathley directly at 501-350-6374 or More information and sign-up forms for Cooking Matters classes for the general public can be found on the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance website.


“PBS NewsHour Weekend,” Saturdays and Sundays at 5:30 p.m.


Cooking Matters at Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance

Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance

Partners for Inclusive Communities

Cooking Matters