Two and a half years ago, Johanna Dommke joined a local cooking and exercise program to lose weight. For years, her version of cooking had been to remove food from a can, box or plastic bag and heat it up in a pot.
Dommke has since learned to cook a variety of vegetables and grains, including those she didn't even know existed, such as leeks, quinoa and bulgur. And she has developed an exercise routine after joining a "walking group" with program teachers.
Now, 80 pounds lighter, the Bennington resident is paying it forward. She is starting her third year as a volunteer mentor at the program she joined: Food Fit, a free 10-week course sponsored by the Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services.
On the evening of Wednesday, her 35th birthday, Dommke joined six other former Food Fit graduates at GBICS' newly built kitchen to make some Moroccan stew and curried split-pea soup.
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The gathering, the first of what the Bennington nonprofit organization intends to be a monthly event, reflects Food Fit's objectives. Men and women of different ages and cooking skills come together to prepare tasty, healthy meals that they would later share around a table.
The focus is on cooking plant-based food. Fish and chicken are used but not red meat. The menus accommodate people with allergies and those who can't eat dairy or gluten.
The program fosters interpersonal relationships at a time when people's social circles are getting smaller or they can't spend too much money on outside activities, said Sue Andrews, executive director of GBICS, which provides food, medical services and financial assistance to people in poverty.
"The table is really a symbol of what it's all about," Andrews said, "we can all get to know each other."
In between the food preparation, Food Fit participants spend up to 30 minutes exercising — like walking around the venue, dancing, doing Hula-Hoops — to learn the importance of physical activity.
The idea of starting the program in 2015 was partly triggered by GBICS' observation that folks who obtain free food from its pantry "don't pick up vegetables," because they don't know how to cook them, Andrews said.
Over the last couple of generations, she said, more and more people have lost the ability to make home-cooked meals. This is especially important, Andrews said, for people on a tight budget.
Faith Matteson, 14, agrees that cooking is a skill the younger generation needs to recover.
The ninth-grader from Arlington joined Food Fit with her mom, Terri, last fall. Terri wanted to develop healthier eating habits and at the same time find an opportunity for her daughter to have more social interaction.
Terri is now eating more vegetables and less candy, while Faith has asked GBICS to start a cooking course for teenagers.
"A lot of teens are depressed and they're not really eating," Faith said while the food was cooking Wednesday night. "I wasn't eating that much till I came here."
If young people can learn to prepare food they like, they're more likely to eat properly, she said.
A teen cooking program is still pending; meanwhile, Andrews is inviting people to sign up for Food Fit sessions starting Feb. 18. There will be mid-day and evening classes, both to be held at the GBICS building at 121 Depot St.
Each class, which will meet once a week for three hours, can accommodate up to about a dozen students. Organizers said they can also assist participants with transportation. For more information, call 802-447-3700.
At GBICS on Wednesday night, Dommke and another volunteer had to do some creative kitchen-problem solving. They forgot to put dessert on the menu, but came up with a blueberry, Greek yogurt and granola parfait on the fly.