Editor's note: This story is part of a series addressing the issue of food insecurity in Richland County. The series will continue throughout 2017 and feature interviews with those working to mitigate the problem and the obstacles they encounter.
MANSFIELD -- Bonita Thomas is no novice when it comes to cooking.
At 66 years old, the Mansfield resident has a wealth of information and experience to pull from when deciding what meals to prepare.
But she's also not against learning more about cooking, which is why she and about a dozen others could be found at First Christian Church, where Catholic Charities (in partnership with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and First Call 211) held a cooking demonstration and nutrition class in early May.
Open to the public, the event was meant to help visitors of local food pantries learn ways to make good-tasting, nutritious meals and snacks with healthy items found in the food pantries, said Susan Dyson, food pantry specialist with Catholic Charities.
"Anyone attending the class would have also learned meal planning, shopping on a budget, reading nutrition labels, and suggestions on how to make recipes already used more healthy, and much more," Dyson said. "The nutritionist from Greater Cleveland Food Bank also allotted enough time to answer individual questions."
Thomas said she found the class very helpful.
"I've been conscience about eating lately and trying to make healthier food choices," she said.
Audrey Medley, 67, echoed Thomas' comments, saying she too learned some helpful tips about cooking.
"I have a dog that loves my cooking," the Mansfield native said laughing.
Though Medley has never been a food pantry client, she does volunteer at Faith United Methodist Church in Ashland during the free meal distribution.
She said it's rewarding to serve.
"I've made a lot of friends, too," she said.
Ariana Cucuzza, nutrition manager with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, walked attendees through meal planning on a budget and how to incorporate healthy foods into one's diet without forsaking flavor in the process.
Try to "eat the colors of the rainbow," she said.
And this doesn't mean eating Skittles, she joked. Consuming different colored produce plays a role in ensuring a person is getting enough nutrients.
Toward the end of class, participants had the opportunity to create their own rice bowls using ingredients primarily from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
The Greater Cleveland Food Bank serves hungry people in Cuyahoga, Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake, Ashland and Richland counties, providing food and other critical grocery products annually to more than 800 food pantries, hot meal programs, shelters, mobile pantries, programs for the elderly and other nonprofit agencies.
In Richland County alone, the food bank supported 13 food pantries last year, including the H.O.P.E. Food Pantry at Catholic Charities. In fact, the majority of food distributed by the H.O.P.E Food Pantry in 2016 was provided by the Cleveland Food Bank.
It's efforts put forth by local food pantries that helped Thomas feed her son and daughter when they were children.
"It was a great resource for making ends meet," she said.
Now that she's retired and has the home to herself, she doesn't go to food pantries anymore.
"It was a blessing then," she said. "But there are people out there who need it more than I need it now."
As a single mother, Thomas worked various jobs over the years to make ends meet, she said.
"My children -- they dressed and looked just as good as the average child," she said. "You would never know that extra benefit (food pantries) was there... They didn't have the name brand clothes, but they were clean and they had the same colors that the other kids had, and they were pressed and ironed.
"People thought we had more than what we had."
Now both of her children have their master's degree and great jobs, she said.
"Today, I don't have to do any worrying," she said. "They're self-sufficient and educated. We went through a lot of struggles trying to get them there, but they're doing good."