MSU Extension offers free cooking and nutrition classes

STANTON — Cutting up an entire chicken while wielding knife safety techniques, leading a quest through a local grocery store for affordable yet tasty produce, teaching simple exercise routines to senior citizens … all in a day’s work for Bonnie Havlicek.

As the nutrition program coordinator for Montcalm County, Havlicek works for Michigan State University Extension which partners with the Michigan Department of Human Services to provide the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Education Program (SNAP-Ed), a free service which teaches participants of all ages how to establish healthy eating habits and increase their time spent being physically active with staying within a limited food budget.

“My target population is low-income families and I don’t have any trouble at all meeting my quota of low-income families in Montcalm County,” Havlicek told Montcalm County commissioners during a June 12 meeting of the Health & Human Services Committee. “Usually, there’s about 70 to 90 percent low-income participants in my classes.”

Participants learn how to prepare and cook healthy and affordable meals in the kitchen at Michigan State University Extension’s office in Stanton. — Courtesy photo

Havlicek’s position is entirely funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Montcalm County provides Havlicek with an office and kitchen at the MSU Extension office — part of the Montcalm County Administrative Building in Stanton — where she teaches her cooking classes.

“People learn to cook from scratch,” she said. “They learn how to cook a meal for four people for about $1 per person.

Cooking Matters is a class offered to teenagers, adults and WIC parents in which participants learn how to eat healthy, cook and grocery shop on a limited budget.

This week, Havlicek will lead WIC parents through Leppink’s in Stanton to teach them tips about smart shopping. Each participant will receive a booklet with recipes, a reusable grocery bag and $10 worth of healthy groceries for free.

“I really get excited about the Cooking Matters classes,” Havlicek enthusiastically told The Daily News. “We get out the knives, we chop up produce and we really cook. For many people, they’re not even used to using a sharp knife safely. It’s enlightening for people how many inexpensive foods you can cook.”

Eat Healthy-Be Active is a class that teaches participants basic yet crucial skills needed to make healthy eating and regular physical activity part of their lifestyle.

Havlicek recently began this class by handing out stretch bands and teaching the group how to do muscle strengthening exercises. The class then made smoothies (two participants had never cleaned strawberries before).

MSU Extension also participates in Senior Project FRESH, which provides Montcalm County senior citizens with vouchers for $20 worth of fresh Michigan produce at all participating farmers markets.

“The Commission on Aging has partnered with Extension for several years,” said Montcalm County Controller-Administrator Bob Clingenpeel, who also oversees the Commission on Aging. “They help us educate our seniors on the importance of nutrition and how to prepare quality meals. Bonnie has done a great job reaching our seniors that have needed that boost in their education about nutrition and how to eat healthy.”

Participants of Michigan State University Extension classes learn how to prepare and cook healthy and affordable meals, such as stir fry.

Havlicek focuses on low-income families, but her classes are open to anyone. She works with all ages and levels of experience, from low-functioning people to college graduates. One thing is the same for almost all her participants: “If you’re going to change a behavior, it takes about six weeks to change that behavior,” she noted.

Anyone wishing to get a “taste” of Havlicek’s nutrition classes can attend a community presentation at 4 p.m. Thursday at Tamarack District Library in Lakeview. She will be reading “Oliver’s Vegetables” by Vivian French and then hosting a taste testing of the vegetables mentioned in the book.