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© Allison Usavage

Cooking Matters Grocery Store Tours

The Cooking Matters® at the Store tours place food educators throughout our local grocery stores, teaching participants and shoppers new skills to stretch their dollars in a nutritious way. Participants can then put their new knowledge into practice with a $10 shopping challenge.

We joined a tour at Tops and talked with Lara Parrilla Kaltman, the Nutrition Team Coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension.

© Allison Usavage
What do you do?

The grocery store tours are a free, interactive, hands-on learning experience where participants are invited to not only learn new skills but share the strategies that they’re already using at home to purchase healthier food at the grocery store.

Who is this good for?

Shopping for healthy food is a challenge for everyone. We have access to so many choices and we all are functioning with busy schedules. For families, especially those who are working with limited resources, it’s an even bigger challenge to be able to cook healthy food at home. So the short answer is, it’s good for everybody. Everybody has something to learn on a tour. But the focus for Cooking Matters is working with families with limited resources who are using the federal nutrition assistance programs.

What kind of bigger picture change are you trying to make?

We would like to see that everyone in Tompkins County is able to have as much healthy food for their families as they want.

We recognize that in order to achieve food security for all, we need to look at issues at the family level, at the community level, and at the policy level. So programs like Cooking Matters at the store allow us to increase the skills and knowledge for addressing food security at home. By more people in our community knowing how to be leaders at home, those people are able to be leaders in their community. In terms of the policy level, we see that our job is to increase awareness of the barriers. So, understanding from the families we meet and the communities we work in what the barriers are to accessing healthy food so that the policy makers and the other influencers are able to make the changes at the systems level, in order to make the family and community levels work better.

How did this program begin here?

We already had a Cooking Matters 6-session series here since 2001, and the grocery store tour is actually week 5 of one of the curriculum. Because it was so successful and because they were able to enhance it in a way that volunteers could do a training and a tour, it was a couple years ago that we started introducing the tours in Tompkins County. We were also recognizing that not every family has the ability to come back week after week, so the 1-hour tour plus the $10 challenge is a really concise way of learning everything in a short amount of time.

Can you explain the $10 challenge?

When families go through the tour, they’re given the opportunity to practice the skills that they just learned in each section of the store, and then again at the end. In each section of the store they learn about unit pricing and looking at labels. They get to check out the products that they’re used to purchasing, so that actually gives them the practice. Then, at the very end, they pull it all together. The challenge is that they have $10 to spend on a healthy meal for their family, and they have to go back and find items from each section of MyPlate using unit pricing and comparing labels. And if they get under the $10 they take home the groceries and can use them to make a meal at home!

How does this impact Ithaca?

Our goal for Tompkins county this year was that we wanted to have 200 people participate. Each tour has about 4 or 5 people. The hope is that in every tour there’s someone who sees themself as a community leader, who can get inspired by the tour and decide that they want to take the training and do the tours at their own local grocery store. Or, someone on the tour might be an influencer who can better understand the challenges for their community, advocate for change, and try to increase awareness so that more families know about the tours and participate.

What struggles have you encountered?

I think the biggest barrier to participation is time. Time and transportation.

What inspires you?

There are moments where I see the impacts of the work that we’ve done and, despite all of the challenges of getting there, those moments keep me going. I had a meeting with the principal of BJM Elementary School recently and we were talking about the school garden. She told me that that garden is getting devoured by the students. The students go back there at recess and pick the kale and the tomatoes. Because they’ve had fresh snacks and fresh produce in their classrooms every day for the past 6 years, it’s like that’s a treat for them. That’s what they know. So I feel so confident that if families have confidence that their children will eat healthier food at home, those kids will. And giving them skills and recipes and practice at being able to do that for their children… I know that those kids are going to eat good food and it’s going to trickle out into all the other people in their lives and in their future.

© Allison Usavage
How can we participate?

If you’re interested in leading a tour in your community and in your grocery store, contact us. You’ll get enrolled as a volunteer for Cooperative Extension, and you’ll have access to this free training and the resources to provide this gift to your community. Because really, I see the tour as a gift. This gives families the gift of time… to slow down for one hour of their day and learn how to make those choices. It’s a way to give a gift to your friends and your family and build your capacity to be a leader and become part of a bigger movement.


or learn more about volunteer opportunities at Cooperative Extension at

The program is offered through a partnership between Share our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County’s Eat Smart New York/SNAP-Ed program.


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