Electric Pressure Cookers Key to New Program Combating Food Insecurity in Wyoming

blond woman wearing floral shirt and name tag that says Jill holds an Instant Pot lid in one hand and sticks a food thermometer into the electric pressure cooker with the other hand

As an inexpensive, nutritious, and shelf-stable source of protein, dry beans are often found in food pantries. At a glance, they’re a great way to improve nutrition and food security. However, dry beans have a downside: They typically require significant time to cook, which can be a challenge, especially at high altitudes.

“It’s one of the least expensive protein-rich foods for pantries to buy and have on their shelves, but it’s also often skipped over and left on shelves,” explains Kali McCrackin Goodenough, manager of the University of Wyoming Extension’s Cent$ible Nutrition Program (CNP).

In 2022, food pantries reached out to CNP with exactly this problem.

Enter the electric pressure cooker

Wyoming’s Cent$ible Nutrition Program offers in-person and online resources focused on nutrition, physical activity, and how to eat healthier on a budget. Funded by the USDA’s Supplemental Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed) and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), the program provides free in-person and online cooking and nutrition classes for those who income qualify.

CNP works with more than 300 partners across the state, including food pantries and other anti-hunger organizations, to serve people facing food insecurity. Many food pantry partners had repeatedly voiced concerns about dry beans going unused by their patrons.

“We asked what would change that and they said a way to cook the beans faster and more efficiently,” says McCrackin Goodenough.

Participants in CNP classes had also expressed apprehension about cooking with dry beans. “Having conversations with participants, they mentioned they didn’t know how to make beans or it takes a really long time,” recalls Cristina Terry, a CNP educator based in Natrona County.

In 2022, CNP launched a new statewide program in response to the needs articulated by partners and participants. CNP staff designed a class on electric pressure cookers to complement their standard eight-lesson curriculum. They also secured external grants to fund the purchase of electric pressure cookers so that participants who successfully completed the program were eligible to receive one of their own.

Especially for food pantry patrons, these devices “provide both a way to cook and a way to use the food sources they have more efficiently,” McCrackin Goodenough explains.

cobalt blue bowl filled with red beans and rice
Red beans and rice prepared using an electric pressure cooker. Photo by Kali McCrackin Goodenough.
Black bean soup prepared using an electric pressure cooker. Photo by Kali McCrackin Goodenough.

How electric pressure cookers can help

Electric pressure cookers help address both food security and nutrition security. “I absolutely love it! I’m eating more vegetables and beans too,” comments a CNP participant from Natrona County. “It is just so easy.”

Electric pressure cookers can be especially helpful for those who may not have access to stable housing or are living in transitional housing. The devices are portable and require only electricity, not access to a stove or other appliances that may not be available in all housing situations.

Even if a person has access to a stove, Terry points out, it may not be a safe or economical option. “It takes a lot of courage to go to a food pantry, and if someone is struggling for food, they may be struggling with something else,” says Terry. “Just because we’re privileged in being able to turn on the stove and not think twice, some individuals may not be.”

For older people or those who may have a physical disability, electric cookers have an additional benefit: They significantly reduce the need to stand for long periods of time while prepping and cooking meals.

Launching the course

Once electric pressure cookers were identified as a potential way to encourage dry bean consumption, the CNP team began developing curriculum for the new class.

Staff from across the state pitched in to help test and compile recipes, write lesson plans, and create a series of videos and other online resources that participants could revisit after they completed an in-person class.

“Educating our participants on all aspects of pressure cooking became a big project for educators around the state,” recalls Wendy Nielson, an educator in Sweetwater County. “To help our participants choose and use these wonderful, nutritious beans…we needed to create a new lesson with the objective of safe cooking and motivation to use the appliance regularly.”

CNP’s typical adult curriculum includes a series of eight hands-on lessons, each about an hour and a half, designed to build knowledge around cooking, food safety, and nutrition. Now, interested graduates are eligible to take a ninth lesson and receive an electric pressure cooker upon graduation.

The electric pressure cookers were purchased through external grants provided by Wyoming Hunger Initiative, Farm Credit Services of America, and other sources. In Natrona County alone, CNP secured funding to procure 100 Instant Pot pressure cookers for participants who successfully completed their nine lessons.

In 2023, CNP also received a grant from the John P. Ellbogen Foundation in support of the program.

A success story

While land-grant universities in other states have provided resources for using online pressure cookers, CNP’s approach is unique. “Our program takes the perspective of food security versus just ‘how do you cook in an electric pressure cooker,’” McCrackin Goodenough comments.

smiling middle-aged man and woman each hold the corner of a certificate of completion showing they finished their electric pressure cooker course.
CNP participants who completed an electric pressure cooker class with educator Mary Evans. Photo courtesy of CNP.

In 2023, 171 people participated in CNP’s electric pressure cooker course, with a total of 42 classes offered across Wyoming. Through exit surveys and conversations with participants, CNP educators have received resoundingly positive feedback on the new program.

“I absolutely love it. It is so easy to just put everything in one pot,” comments a CNP graduate in Natrona County. “I’m eating better and feeling better. I’m eating more vegetables, too…Every time I cook in it, I invite all my friends over!”

For another participant, who serves as the primary cook for his multi-generational family, the electric pressure cooker has saved a lot of time. “His family couldn’t believe how fast the beans cooked,” says Billie Spoonhunter, a CNP educator on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The electric pressure cookers have even inspired some participants who were previously reluctant to cook at all, reports Mary Evans, a CNP educator serving Converse and Platte Counties. “Almost daily, she [a CNP graduate] is posting something she cooked in the electric pressure cooker and shared with her coworkers. This is a young lady who hated to cook and now loves it and tells people how much she learned in the class,” Evans comments.

Another couple she worked with “indicated that they use the electric pressure cooker frequently and that it has been a lifesaver. Kandi was not a cook before this class and has taken up cooking with the use of the electric pressure cooker.”

Sharing resources with a wider audience

CNP’s electric pressure cooker program was designed to aid people facing food insecurity, but it’s also relevant to a wider audience. With this in mind, the CNP team is sharing the videos and other resources they developed via a free online course hosted by UW Extension. While members of the general public are not eligible to receive a free electric pressure cooker, they are welcome to peruse the online course for instructions on how to safely use and clean the devices.

“Using an electric pressure cooker can be a little intimidating at first,” says Nielson. “The information that is taught in the class is a great resource for folks wanting to learn how to safely use it.”

The online class, which is approximately an hour long, familiarizes users with the device’s components and settings as well as how to adjust recipes for higher altitude locations. “It’s tailored to people who haven’t used an electric pressure cooker before, but also to the realities of living and cooking in Wyoming,” McCrackin Goodenough explains.

To view the online course, visit https://bit.ly/uw-electric-pressure-cooker. To learn more about CNP, visit uwyocnp.org.

two fish tacos with vegetables on a green plate
Tacos made with fish cooked in an electric pressure cooker. Photo by Kali McCrackin Goodenough.
turquoise cup of soup made of lentils, split peas, rice, and barley
Palouse soup, a mixture of lentils, split peas, rice, and barley, made in an electric pressure cooker. Photo by Kali McCrackin Goodenough.