Lilah Handler, left, chats about shopping on a budget with State Representative Robyn Gabel and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky.Photo by Emma Garl Smith

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Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, State Rep. Robyn Gabel and Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl came together at the Jewel grocery store in Evanston on July 1 for a grocery tour and cooking demonstration intended to highlight and create awareness for Illinois food assistance programs. The event, funded by the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, featured a grocery store tour by Lilah Handler, coordinator at Cooking Matters, a program that teaches thousands of families every year about eating healthy on a limited budget.

“SNAP education funds Cooking Matters to educate on how to eat healthy, what it looks like and then helps [families] actually purchase ingredients … to eat healthy food,” said Ms. Handler.

The event was hosted by the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition (IMCHC), an organization that works to promote the health and well-being of children and families throughout Illinois. IMCHC facilitates this through support of programs and organizations that increase access to vital resources for health care and other necessities of children and families.

“[The goal of IMCHC] is to improve the health of women, children and families over the lifespan through a variety of different approaches which include partnerships, housing development and education,” said Janine Lewis, executive director at IMCHC. “As of Feb. 1, we became the lead agency for the Cooking Matters program, and Cooking Matters is designed to help low-income families learn how to cook on a budget,” she added.

Ms. Handler began her tour by describing how something as simple as buying seasonal foods can make an impact on nutrition. She said, “[Produce] loses a lot of nutrients during transportation.” She also emphasized that the healthier foods tend to be on the outer edges of the grocery store. Ms. Lewis said a major reason for programs like Cooking Matters is that “lower-income families tend to lean more heavily as a portion of their diet on high-calorie alternatives because they’re cheaper.”

In an effort to underline some of the major difficulties of grocery shopping on a restricted income and to show support for federal aid programs, Rep. Schakowsky was one of 20 legislators to complete the Congressional Food Stamp Challenge, which required participants to live on a food stamp budget. This was an average of $3 a day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s really hard,” said Rep. Schakowsky of her experience during the challenge. “My last meal was ramen, bread and some sweet potatoes.” When comparing her shopping habits before and after the experience, she added, “There is nothing spontaneous when you are on a fixed budget. Planning is very, very important.” She said she even went so far as to cut off bite marks when her dog grabbed a piece of chicken that had been purchased during the challenge instead of throwing it away.

A contributing factor for the necessity of programs like Cooking Matters and the work of the IMCHC is the recent House Agriculture Committee Farm Bill bringing funding cuts to the SNAP program – more than $25 billion over the next 10 years. The House of Representatives rejected the bill, and threats to federal assistance programs endanger the lives of millions of Americans who depend on them for basic needs.

“When we hear about things that threaten nutrition education for low-income families, which is what SNAP is designed to do … that definitely is right in line with our mission,” said Ms. Lewis. “We understand that one of our major constituencies is families under the poverty level, so we want to make sure they have all the resources available to get through tough times. Whether it be education or whether it be actual benefits … [we] make sure we can be advocates for the population.”

As the tour continued around the store, Rep. Schakowsky inspected the labels on produce and meats as Ms. Handler pointed them out. The differences in the price of chicken cutlets versus meats in larger packages and the significance of buying whole carrots versus grated carrots were discussed in detail as key examples of what Cooking Matters seeks to teach during its programs. However, the main goal of the event was to illustrate these details to the representatives and Mayor Tisdahl, whose awareness of these programs is important to the program’s future and success.

“For us, doing grocery store tours like that and highlighting the importance of those tours for decision-makers, which I would say is another one of our important constituencies, is really important,” Ms. Lewis said. “We can’t do our job with advocating for low-income families if we don’t highlight the stress that they’re under and highlight how hard it is to purchase foods on a budget to those that are in power – to let them know about some things that are going on in their own community.”

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl also voiced her support for the program. “We have a lot of Evanston young people who get … free and reduced lunch during the school year. We really appreciate the federal money we get that covers lunches. It’s heavily used,” she said.

At the end of the tour, Ms. Handler introduced Jen Fisher, who said she had grown up on food stamps and believed in the importance of federal aid for families in need. “I did grow up on government assistance in Iowa,” she said. “I was very fortunate to have parents who taught me how to stretch a dollar – to buy food in bulk when it was on sale – and I used that knowledge to get through college.”

Ms. Fisher also stressed the demand for programs like Cooking Matters that provide families an important resource. “This program is so amazing … Anything could happen to your family at any point in time … [It is important] knowing that there is that resource there to help you feed your children, because they’re the ones who are the most out to dry.”

The Cooking Matters event not only emphasized the importance of nutrition and buying food on a budget, but added awareness that there are resources available to any family in need.