What began in the early 1990s as a handful of women learning basic cooking skills on a couple of hot plates in a vocational school classroom has blossomed into a fun, full-scale nutrition education program, one that even sends participants home with bags of free groceries.

The program will hold its next set of classes from 9 a.m. to noon on May 4, 11, 18 and 25 at Trinity Lutheran Church, Lehighton. To register for the free classes, call Stanley Haupt at (610) 377-6048.

The Carbon County Super Cupboard program teaches low-income young mothers not only how to buy and prepare nutritious foods, it teaches them budgeting, how to use leftovers and how to use unfamiliar but low-cost foods.

Canned chicken, for example, is cheap and nutritious. The secret, Super Cupboard instructor Kathleen Tomasovich says, "is to rinse it really well."

Canned pumpkin can be used to make brownies or soup.

"There are always one or two ways to use a canned item that they are not used to," she says.

Tomasovich has taught participants how to make homemade pizza and stromboli, basic white sauces; the basics of good meals that are cheap, homemade and tasty.

She has seen changes in the 14 years she's been on board.

"Before, it was just learning how to cook. Now, it's more about survival," she says. "Now, it's , 'Oh, I can cut costs this way, or I can cut costs that way' and make their food budgets stretch even further."

Tomasovich sees the changes that the program brings.

"Their confidence level rises," she says. "When they cook, their confidence level goes up after those few weeks. Being confident that they can cook nutritious meals for their families makes them feel better about themselves."

First-hand experience

Pam Gillair of Albrightsville is grateful for what the program has to offer. She and her husband Ryan have four children ranging in age from 12 to 8, including 10-year-old twins.

Gillair learned about Super Cupboard a few years ago through the Carbon County HeadStart program.

"I really didn't know what to expect," she says.

What did she learn?

"I never knew you could buy chicken in a can," she says. "I bought canned chicken and made chicken and waffles. I had never heard of such a thing. I didn't know there was chicken in a can. It's much cheaper. You buy chicken in a can and some generic waffles and you have a meal."

But her favorite lesson involved spaghetti squash.

"I had seen it, but never knew what to do with it. They had gotten spaghetti squash and showed us how to make it," she says.

Gillair knew her children were unlikely to try the new food if she told them what it was, so she topped it with Alfredo sauce "and it was like pasta." She also uses cheese sauce on the spaghetti squash.

"I think it's a great experience. It's very helpful, giving you different ideas, especially is you have finicky children or are on a tight budget," she says. "And whatever you made that day, they sent you home with the ingredients to make it for your family at home."

In Lansford, Kara Knoblauch makes good use of what she's learned at Super Cupboard, cooking simple, nutritious meals for her three children, Rachel, 12; River, 7, and Brooklyn, 5.

Knoblauch attended Super Cupboard sessions to get a sanity break while caring for her youngest child through a serious medical problem.

"I decided to go because my youngest daughter had a lot of medical issues, and it gave me a chance to be out with other mothers," she says.

Knoblauch said the group "learned about a lot of things. We learned about couponing, we learned about the different programs offered in the county, we learned about domestic abuse, we learned about budgeting, checking our credit reports, preparations for cooking fast, cheap meals."

She was especially surprised to learn about the numbers of programs available to help families, even ones that are not low-income.

She liked the diversity of the group, too.

"I was in a group with mothers who were foster parents, grandparents taking care of their grandchildren. we had a pretty good group," she says. "We talked about things and exchanged ideas."

Knoblauch brought home recipes and ingredients for the meals she learned to cook at Super Cupboard.

"They send you home with a tremendous amount of food to prepare lots of meals," she says.

One of her family's favorites is soup.

"We make soups all the time, we can be creative in making soups," she says. "For quick meals, I prepare it the in the morning and put it in the Crock Pot. That way I'm not standing at the stove for an hour. by the time we come home, it's ready to eat."

Beginnings

The program got it's start in the mid-1990s, said early organizer Grace Dunn.

"It started with Carol Daniels. We were with the (Carbon County) vo-tech, and she was trying to put together a program and feed and teach young women nutrition. We did the first class at the vo-tech in a classroom, using electric fry pans."

From there, the program moved to the vo-tech's Adult Education Center, where Dunn, who worked as the school's Adult Education Coordinator, had started a single parents program.

"Carol came in twice a year and did this cooking class. The vo-tech got involved because we had access to a lot of single mothers," Dunn says. "They were good recipients of this type of program."

Super Cupboard is funded through a weave of government grants, United Way, Shepherd House and Second Harvest, the largest food bank in the Lehigh Valley.

Haupt, who is Executive Director of Shepherd House, said the need for food assistance is rising. In January 2011, Shepherd House's nine food pantries provided for 992 households; by January 2012, that number had increased to 1,163 households.

Shepherd House provides $500 a year to help support the Super Cupboard classes, which are held in spring and fall. United Way of Carbon County donates $900, of which 10 percent is contributed by Shepherd House.

The state Department of Community and Economic Development contributes $1,500 for the food pantries and Super Cupboard, and the state Food Purchase Program contributes $1,220.

In addition to the financial support, Super Cupboard relies on a solid volunteer board of directors. They include chairwoman Edith Thrash; treasurer Gail Solomon; secretary Shirley Radler; board members Viki DeMarco and county commissioners Wayne Nothstein and Tom Gerhard; Haupt and Tomasovich.