A total of 31 applications were received and reviewed by the CSS committee and XXX research team for potential eligibility. From the total pool of applicants, five individuals were eliminated for not meeting inclusion/exclusion criteria (such as not being available on selected evening), a total of 15 individuals were invited to participate, 13 began the program, but only 11 participants completed the program. One subject withdrew due to personal health issues and a second subject withdrew due to transportation issues. At the conclusion of the Community Cooks peer mentor training program, retention rate was 85%. All the peer mentors were women over 40 years-of-age, most were high school graduates, and participated in some form of federal nutrition assistance programming (Table 3). The 11 subjects who completed the study attended an average of 92.7% of the nine scheduled training sessions (range, 80%-100%).
Peer Mentor Feedback
All the peer mentors participated in the evaluation process and reported on how the program benefited them personally as well as the impact it had upon others. General findings included: 1) they felt that the recruitment methods were effective in successfully enlisting eligible participants; 2) the information session provided an appropriate overview of the program and the participation requirements, 3) there were an appropriate number of peer mentors for the room size, the trainings, and the workshops, 4) the nutritional educational sessions were timed appropriately, 5) the nutritional educational sessions were tailored towards the lay population and included topics appropriate towards the diverse culture, health concerns, and cost concerns that are found among the peer mentors, 6) the foods included in the training sessions were appropriate as they are foods often found in MCM and are also low-cost, 7) the trainings provided the necessary cooking safety skills as well as cooking skills needed to lead a workshop for pantry patrons, 8) the trainings provided knowledge that can be used at home or in their role as volunteers or as peer mentors in MCM, 9) the trainings empowered them and provided them with knowledge and skills by which they can use at home, with their family, friends, or in future workshops, and 10) the peer group formed together and the mentor role individually, both gave them a sense of community, purpose, and camaraderie.
Focus group sessions provided peer mentor feedback from their perspective as having served as a peer mentor in the Community Cooks program and their feedback was overwhelmingly positive. This feedback was valuable in helping researchers understand the appropriateness of the program training, peer mentor satisfaction, and their commitment to the model. Peer mentors responded by not only sharing the benefits of the program for others at the EFP but also how the program benefitted them personally. Peer mentor comments included:
“[The program] made it easy to want to eat healthy and learn more. I felt very at home.”
“It was very informative, and I got a lot from the class[es]. I'm quite sure others learned a lot too.”
“I thought the classes gave a lot of good information. I was able to share with my family, with neighbors.”
“This program reinforced a lot of things that I knew, kind of brought back some things that I knew, and it helped me share with others. Like taking something and making it healthier and then having somebody say hey, this is really pretty good.”
Peer mentors were also asked about the format and structure of the Community Cooks program, including the train-the-trainer model, with nine training sessions and three community workshops. The consensus was they liked the way the Community Cooks program format was designed and they felt prepared for each workshop. Feedback included:
“I think [the format] worked because it gave you more of a backbone to stand on. This way you had enough [information] under your belt that you felt confident enough to do the training instead of just one workshop, one training. You know, you had enough confidence to say okay, I know little bit about this.”
“I think [the peer mentor model] boosted confidence level a little bit when you're going to demonstrate, [and] when you're meeting people. It helped you to communicate better [and] I think because it's not just me, it’s me and [Name].
“I would say that I liked how we demonstrate to people.”
“I can do this.”
The group also spoke about how they felt more confident as peer mentors as time progressed and they were more comfortable in their role. One peer mentor shared:
“I think that the first [workshop] we had [was] okay. But I think each one got better. I really do because everybody felt more confident than seeing the first people up there.”
Though the purpose of the Community Cooks program was to provide peer mentor-led nutrition education and skills to community members, the program also positively influenced many of the peer mentors’ personal health habits. The majority of peer mentors shared the personal changes they made in as a result of the program, and responses included:
“It helped me as a whole think twice before eating things that are full of salt or margarine or you can eat good without frying everything.”
“I use less salt and I use more different seasonings.”
“I use more like natural herbs. I've used fresh cilantro. I've used fresh garlic where before I was using the canned or the jarred. I got a chopper, and I put the garlic in it and chop the garlic up with a little bit of olive oil and cook with that. I use more olive oil. I use more olive oil than other kind of oils. I try to sweeten with honey instead of sugar.”
“I was getting a little bit turned off by meat, so this all has taught me to experiment. I was on [to] black beans, and I was introducing them to other family members and telling them about the vitamins. I think I'm being more conscious of my plate with the veggies. I am being creative. I am making my own dressing and trying different things and really introducing the veggies to the grandkids and we're trying a couple of things”.
The peer mentors noted an increase in their own cooking self-efficacy due to time spent in the training sessions with the research team. They noted that training sessions expanded their knowledge as well as their desire to experiment and try new recipes and ingredients. One peer mentor shared her newfound ease with recipe experimentation:
“It was just like instead of a, b, and c, okay, I can add this to it, or I can add that to it and see how far I could push that envelope”
The focus group also inquired about the peer mentors’ reactions regarding the poor attendance by MCM community members noted at the community workshops. Insight included:
“I think what the barriers are, it's a foodbank night. That's why. People have a hard time getting here anyway because they're bussing it, cabbing it, Uber-ing it, whatever. So, they have a hard time getting here anyway. Now, to get them here twice a month, oh, you done asked a lot. So, the barrier is the transportation here. The second barrier is they have their food with them. They don’t want to miss out of that food because they need it.”
The peer mentors also shared ideas for future marketing to entice community members to attend, such as raffle drawings and incentives offered for workshop participation. There was consensus around the need to educate the MCM community on the benefits that workshop participation could bestow upon attendees. The peer mentors were also asked about the use of the word “workshop” and whether that word resonated with the community. Peer mentors suggested that this terminology was not ideal and contributed to the lack of community participation. One peer mentor shared: “I think like cooking demo or something. Do away with the word workshop. A lot of people have different ideas of [what a workshop is].” Another peer mentor reinforced this by saying community members may feel: “[They] might feel they're getting lectured. Because usually a workshop, a lot of times you get lectured. There was also uncertainty about the “who, what, when, why” of the workshop, which ultimately led to confusion and limited participation. Overall, the peer mentors felt that calling it ‘events’, ‘demonstrations’, or ‘cooking classes’ over the terminology “workshop” would be preferred.
The final focus group question asked the peer mentors for next phase ideas for the program, and they shared general thoughts about having a peer mentor presence in the EFP to help patrons with food selections. They also suggested having recipes and food samples available to provide patrons to encourage them to use unfamiliar produce items or ingredients. The peer mentors also envisioned an opportunity to provide nutrition education to patrons as they were waiting in the long lines to shop the EFP as this might be an ideal window of opportunity to capture their attention and share valuable knowledge before entering the EFP.
Another critical and noteworthy focus group finding was not just the benefit of the peer mentor model for the EFP and MCM community, but the peer mentors also discussed the positive dynamic and synergy that was created among the group of peer mentors. They shared a learned level of respect for each other and how during the training sessions they learned from one another and were then able to later share this information when they were conducting the workshops. They shared:
“I think the group that we ended up with was a good group because we all had something to put in. We had diversity to put in from other cultures. We had age brackets. We had social brackets.”
“We fell right in with each other.”
“Everybody was on the maturity level and the learning level that it made it so that when somebody said something everybody's ears perked up.”
“The group that committed themselves to [the program], we learned from each. We were able to feed off each other and broaden it.”
Peer mentors discussed how they developed a sense of belonging within the group and how they genuinely looked forward to coming to sessions and developing friendships among other peers. They described a cohesive sense of community and comradery that were beyond program expectations. This web of community created a bond among them that was unexpected to the peers themselves and to program facilitators. The peer mentors recognized that without the Community Cooks program, they would not have met nor created this unique connection among one another. These findings share the tangible and intangible power of a peer mentoring model.