Columbia's Cooking!

Local cooking classes focus on chronic disease prevention

Katherine Shavo, director of Columbia’s Cooking! at U.S.C., teaches a healthy cooking class.

Bob Lancaster

Columbia’s Cooking! is offering up a buffet of healthy cooking classes that may be the best kept secret in the Midlands. The series of cooking classes held at the University of South Carolina campus aims to educate people on simple and effective methods of healthy meal preparation and the importance of incorporating whole foods into their diets. Directed by Katherine Shavo, MS, RD, LD, Columbia’s Cooking! offers a variety of classes that teach both kids and adults about nutrition, cooking basics and new types of cuisine.

Classes are held in a bright, modern and spacious demonstration kitchen designed by Dr. James Hébert, director of the South Carolina Statewide Cancer Prevention and Control Program (CPCP), who brought the idea for Columbia’s Cooking! to South Carolina. The sleek 1,200-square-foot space features lots of space for participants of all ages to learn how to prepare healthy meals, as well as a large mirror tilted above an expansive island centered in the room so that participants can easily gather around to view cooking demonstrations using the actual food they helped prepare. Warm bamboo cabinets contrast against dark countertops and stainless steel appliances glint in the brightly lit space, a testament to James’s attention to detail. Tall windows give the space high visibility on U.S.C.’s campus, as well as excellent views of the Vista and the lush herb gardens that the CPCP maintains. Those herbs are used in classes to show how easy it is to obtain fresh local ingredients.

Classes are hands-on and are led or designed by registered dieticians, local chefs and food experts. Instructors demonstrate and educate on a variety of topics, ranging from Indian cuisine and vegetarian cooking to spice demonstrations and knife skills. Classes are suitable for people of all ages and skill levels; culinary summer camps are offered for children as well. Regardless of topic, the main message of each class is that what people eat impacts their health, and fresh, vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables and unprocessed whole grains are used as the base ingredients.


A recent class showed participants that passing a fresh green zucchini over the sharp blades of a mandolin results in long, spaghetti-like strands. Upcoming classes include a Six Weeks to Good Health series, as well as Healthy Harvest – The Mediterranean Way, led by frequent guest instructor Patricia Moore-Pastides. A Parent’s Night Out class gives children hands-on kitchen experience while their parents enjoy dinner in the nearby Vista.

Classes are appropriate for everyone, especially those who have health concerns and/or family histories of heart disease, hypertension, cancer, diabetes and obesity. “We show people what preparing whole foods in a healthy manner feels like, smells like, tastes like,” says Katherine. “We try to help them understand and learn how to take whole foods and ingredients and turn them into dinner in a relatively short amount of time. You don’t have instant meals, for the most part, that are healthy so you do have to put a little time into it, but it is worth it.”

Getting people to read recipes, pay attention to details and open up to new ways of doing things in the kitchen are often the hardest parts of Katherine’s job. “I used to say ‘what you learned from your grandmother,’ but I’m finding now that people don’t learn to cook from their grandmothers or mothers as much anymore,” she says. “We have children who don’t understand that french fries are potatoes or know where their food comes from, so we try and help make that connection for both children and adults.”

Myths that healthy food is expensive and that cooking is time consuming are partly what keep people in an unhealthy state. Katherine is on a personal mission to debunk these myths and help people realize that what is written on packaging isn’t always necessarily true. “Nutrition is the new snake oil. We help cut through the nutrition noise,” she says. “I’m not from South Carolina, but I am a native Southerner. I was fortunate enough to be raised by a woman who was a smart cook, so I was not steeped in fatback. I help people understand that we can make our delicious Southern food – healthy.”
James says, “There is a solid base of scientific literature which informs us that the things you put in your mouth are either going to contribute to good health or conversely cause disease or contribute to poor health.”

In 2003, James and a few colleagues founded CPCP as a non-mandated grassroots organization within U.S.C. James holds one of the first joint doctorates in nutritional epidemiology in the country, from Harvard University. Nutritional epidemiology is the study of the distribution and patterns of health outcomes in relation to dietary factors that may cause them or alter their course. He was recruited to U.S.C. from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, where he and his associates had built an educational program that focused on the importance of hands-on nutritional knowledge, physical activity and meditation for cardiac rehabilitation patients. People in the community at-large wanted access to the same knowledge and instruction without having to be under the care of a physician, so James designed a research and demonstration kitchen and community education program, on which he modeled Columbia’s Cooking! for residents of South Carolina.

U.S.C.’s CPCP houses one of 23 programs in the country that are National Cancer Institute-funded Community Networks Program Centers. It ranks very highly in research funding, sitting among top players in the field, including the University of Washington and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In order to maintain funding, it is required to have a community-based program. Columbia’s Cooking!, which builds on the CPCP’s national reputation in nutrition and cancer, exists to offer that, as well as to serve as a research and data collection vehicle. “Research should be seen as a service,” says James. “Virtually everything we do on the research side, and really on the service side too, is aimed at cancer related health disparities.”

CPCP brings in millions of dollars a year in funding, primarily from the National Institutes of Health, and from Army-funded interventions on the three integral aspects of maintaining a healthful lifestyle: diet, meditation and physical activity. “When people just try changing their diet without changing other aspects of their lives, it doesn’t work,” says James. Katherine and James are enthusiastic about their work at the CPCP and the benefits of programs like Columbia Cooking! Katherine says, “People need to slow down a little and say, ‘I’m worth it. I can do this.’”

Register for Columbia’s Cooking! classes by visiting the CPCP’s website at or by calling (803) 576-5624. Class prices vary but include the cost of food, and you always get to sample the dishes. Class sizes are limited to 20 people, and classes are not repeated often, so early registration is important. All classes are located in the demonstration kitchen on the U.S.C. campus on the first floor in the Discovery I building on the corner of Greene and Lincoln streets, directly across from the Colonial Life Arena.