The tours also stressed the importance of meal planning. The Share Our Strength survey found that families that regularly budget and plan for meals using a written grocery list eat healthful, balanced or made-from-scratch dinners most days of the week.
But 35 percent of survey respondents don't regularly use written grocery lists, and 55 percent do not plan meals before going to the store.
"You have to have a game plan," said Rebecca Johnson, 39, who attended a tour at the Shoppers Food Warehouse in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County that was administered by the Greater Mount Vernon Community Head Start program. Johnson has a 4-year-old daughter and often clips coupons and makes lists. But she said the tour reminded her that she should never go to the grocery store hungry or thirsty, because that usually results in a cart full of snacks and drinks.
Many Cooking Matters participants agree. Of those who took a tour in 2011, 51 percent said they would start comparing food labels to make healthful choices, 54 percent said they would start comparing unit prices to find the best deals and 56 percent said they would read ingredient lists to find whole grains.
Despite its success, the program faces financial challenges. The recent deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff" decreased funding for nutrition education, which helps to pay for programs such as Cooking Matters, by $109 million, or 28 percent, for the current fiscal year. As a result, Share Our Strength anticipates that Cooking Matters will serve at least 3,000 fewer families than planned, though some partners are considering offering more stand-alone grocery tours and fewer six-week cooking courses, given the budget uncertainty.
The proof that such educational tours work was in the shopping baskets of the Brooklyn participants. At the end of the session, each student was given $10 to buy four servings of healthful produce, lean meats, dairy and whole grains. Kim Kilkenny, a 52-year-old mother of three, bought whole-grain pasta, kale, chicken cutlets, a quart of nonfat yogurt and a mango. She planned to marinate the chicken in the yogurt and mango, and serve it alongside braised greens and pasta. Her total bill: $9.90.