As demand for food parcels increases, a local budgeting service starts cooking classes to help people eat healthier food and stretch their money. Rebecca Blithe reports.

"Yohan will like these," says Margaret Jean Perry, solo mother of eight, of the noodle and egg fritters she's learned to make in the Mangere Budgeting Services Trust kitchen.

"I buy four boxes of noodles a week. There are 30 packets in a box. They eat them dry," she says. While noodles are literally a cheaper-than-chips option, Ms Perry tries to feed her children vegetables when she can. "We eat a lot of stews. I get my vegetables at the markets. Then I go to the butcher for meat."

The night before she'd managed to stretch a $5 packet of mince into 12 hamburgers. Nutritionist Julie Ash has been brought in to run cooking classes on a budget and is impressed with her first student. "She's very clued up. She has a lot of tips she's created out of necessity."

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But chief executive Darryl Evans says most beneficiaries coming through the door are not well equipped with basic cooking skills, which could help to cut the costs of feeding large families.

"Families are coming to us because they're desperate," he says. "We've had a 69 per cent spike in calls for food. There are people who don't know how to boil an egg. We'd give food to people and they'd ring and say, 'Oh you've given us flour. I don't know how to cook with that'. A local farmer donated silverbeet, but people didn't know what to do with it."

Ms Ash says people who haven't been taught to cook throw out useable items and fall back on takeaways.

"For some, their parents haven't taught them to cook, so it is a vicious cycle. We're doing things like teaching people how to cook porridge. How to make basic mince meals that change to nachos or burritos. There's a myth that healthy eating is more expensive. It's more knowing how to cook using healthy food."

Ms Ash says the classes will include budget assessments, trips to the supermarket, planning meals and working out what's really in food.

"It's showing them how to shop smarter. Take noodles. There are 10 or more brands on the market. The cheapest have 20 per cent fat, whereas the budget ones we used here had only 3 per cent. There's the obvious things, like Coke. It's cheaper than milk, which is a crime, but there's also the option of drinking water."

She uses empty Coke bottles filled with sugar to demonstrate how unhealthy it is. "There's 13 teaspoons of sugar in a 600ml bottle of coke. I've found by coming out here that Maori and Pacific Islanders are very much kinaesthetic learners [who learn by doing rather than listening to a lecture]. So there will be lots of demonstrating and practical things."

Recipe for coping

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Mangere Budgeting Services Trust's cooking classes are funded by Counties Manukau District Health Board. They consist of 10 two-and-a-half hour classes a month. Phone Mangere Budgeting Service, (09) 275 2266.