A total of 31 applications were received and reviewed by the CSS committee and Villanova University FCN 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 the selected evening or unable to secure childcare to attend), 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. After the Community Cooks peer mentor training program, the retention rate was 85%. All the peer mentors were women over 40 years-of-age, most were high school graduates and currently participate in some form of federal nutrition assistance programming (Table 4). 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
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. All the peer mentors (n=11) participated in the focus groups and provided feedback on how the program not only benefited them personally but also on the impact they felt they had on community members. This feedback was valuable in helping researchers understand the appropriateness of the program training, peer mentor satisfaction, and their commitment to the model.
Key successes of the program included: 1) serving in the role as a peer mentor was an empowering experience which gave them a sense of community, purpose, and camaraderie; 2) the nutrition education was appropriately tailored those living with food insecurity; 3) the recipes required minimal cooking skills and included low-cost easily accessible foods available at the EFP. Key challenges of the program were the lack of community member engagement in the nutrition education workshops.
Empowering Peer Mentor Experience
Peer mentors were asked about their experience in their role serving as a program peer mentor for the Community Cooks program. Aspects regarding the peer mentor model, including the train-the-trainer model, with nine training sessions and three community workshops, were explored. The consensus from the peer mentors was that they liked the way the Community Cooks program format was designed; they felt the training was delivered in a format that was easy to understand and replicate. They also included that through their training, they felt prepared to conduct each workshop and felt well supported by research staff as well as one another. 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 [other] people.”
The group spoke about how they felt more confident in their role as a peer mentor as time progressed and they were becoming more comfortable in their role. Peer mentors 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. 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 developed a shared level of respect for each other and expressed how, during the training sessions, they learned from one another and were able to share this information later 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.”
“I can do this.”
“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.
Appropriately Tailored Nutrition Education
The next theme that emerged from the focus group findings was on the reaction the peer mentors had on the content, quality, and appropriateness of the nutrition education program to suit the needs of their community members. Peer mentors indicated that not only did they learn new information from the research team, but that they greatly valued the ideas that were also shared by their fellow peers. 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 felt motivated to adopt many of the nutrition education strategies for themselves and their family members. 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.”
Recipes Included the Use of Assessible Ingredients with Simple Preparation
The peer mentors noted an increase in their 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 simple new recipes with easily accessible ingredients. Two peer mentors shared their 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”
“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”.
Challenges of Peer Mentor Model
It was noted throughout the Community Cooks program that is was still challenging to attract a wide range of community members to attend the workshops. Workshop participation averaged approximately five patrons per session. The focus group inquired about the peer mentors’ reactions regarding the poor attendance by the MCM community as well as any barriers that might have prevented community member attendance. 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.”
“You’re not going to get everybody, but here are going to be some people who are enticed by “oh, you did this and oh, there’s going to be a drawing and oh, we get to take food, and we cook” Some people may be interested.”
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 peer mentors also envisioned an opportunity to provide nutrition education beyond the scope of a formal workshop and directly to patrons while were waiting in the long lines to shop the EFP. Peer mentors felt that capturing patrons during their shopping trip might be an ideal window of opportunity to share valuable nutrition knowledge before they enter the EFP.