Teaching a cooking class began as a way to help people make healthier food affordably, but for instructors Janine Jalbert and Christine Gionet, it became much more.

Jalbert is a member of the Vankleek Hill Baptist Church, and says her faith was a major factor in her interest in getting involved in the food bank. She approached Hawkesbury Mayor Jeanne Charlebois, who she knew was involved in the food bank. Soon, she had a kitchen for her class at Centre Viens et Vois. The first class was held in September of 2015.

It started slowly. “We only had one client,” she remembers. But in December, at least six people attended. Since, it has continuously attracted about 10 people per class. They prepare a meal each class: Gionet is in charge of appetizers, Jalbert does a main course, and Leola Meagher does desserts. They eat as a group and any leftovers go home with the students.

The idea of offering cooking classes as a way to combat hunger is recognized by organizations like Food Banks Canada, which describes educations programs as one of the “essential” roles of food banks. Suzie Hinson, coordinator at the Hawkesbury Central Food Bank, says demand there is increasing. The organization distributed 580 boxes of food during the Christmas season, up from 560 last year.

Not all of the women’s students depend on the food bank, however – one started attending as a way of healing after the death of her son. Others  may not regularly use the food bank but want to learn to save money by cooking at home.

Jalbert says it’s all about learning basic skills you need to be successful in the kitchen. The students are men and women of all ages. One student, a widower at 72, is working on learning to cook. He is not a strong reader, said Jalbert, and his wife used to do all of the cooking, but now he knows how to measure and is starting to prepare food at home. They have also been helping students learn to budget and price match. 

Janine Jalbert and Christine Gionet at Centre Viens et Vois in Hawkesbury.

They were a bit surprised when the class became a social event, and the students started sharing stories. “It started as a basic cooking course that sort of grew and grew into something that’s becoming…wow, it’s incredible what’s happening,” Jalbert said. “It’s a safe place, it’s a learning place.”

That people become closer in the kitchen is no surprise, maybe. “We come from a generation where we cooked with our parents and grandparents,” Jalbert says. “People used to gather and share recipes and stories. This is where people learned about life, in general.” That may not always be the case anymore, said Jalbert, but she still sees the social aspect of cooking reflected in her classes. She notices one student whose stress melts away after just a few minutes in class. “It’s an amazing stress relief, it’s an amazing place to share stories. The kitchen is really the heart of people’s lives.”

Jalbert has some big ideas for the future of the class. The women held a “make-over day” last year. A professional hair dresser, make-up artists, and manicurist came as volunteers, and gave all the students hair cuts, make-up advice, and manicures. They want to do that again in 2017. Jalbert also has other ideas: she wants to invite a chef to the class (specifically celebrity chef Ricardo, but someone else might do as well) and find a way to offer restaurant coupons to her students. They hope next year to have access to a bigger kitchen to teach the students how to cook a turkey. Meanwhile, Jalbert said she’s getting a lot from the experience. “I’m learning so much from this, I think we both are. It’s an eye opener.”