Fresh fruits and vegetables can be quite costly, especially if you live in a food desert where such foods are out of reach. One woman in Dallas, Texas is changing that narrative with her company, Cooking 4 Cost.
Michaela Starling, a California transplant, runs the pop-up Cooking 4 Cost, that aims at helping people and families eat healthy, plant-based meals on a budget.
Due to her family’s poor health history, Starling slowly transitioned to a plant-based lifestyle after cutting pork 6 years ago and only ate beef, chicken and fish. After a while, she quit eating chicken and beef.
“I was just becoming more aware of how I was feeling so I tried to just eat fish for a while and I will say that being pescatarian was fine until I began researching the state of our oceans and our planet,” Starling said.
At this realization, Starling transitioned to a fully plant-based diet a year ago where she grew a passion for creating delicious dishes from cheap grocery purchases.
“People have this idea in their head that, “Oh you’re vegan? You must have a lot of money!” There are all these preconceived notions for people who are vegan,” Starling said.
The issue is that not everyone has access to a grocery store, let alone one that sells cheap produce or food deemed to be healthy.
“One of the things that I’m always talking about is that cooking does not have to break the bank,” Starling said.
Starling’s approach to combating this is to provide meals in different spaces such as to schools in East Dallas, co-working spaces, and events targeting people of color.
Popping-up at spaces like these allows Cooking 4 Cost to gain a reputation for serving the community.
“A big part of my purpose is to serve people, but also to educate. I feel like I have a responsibility, not only to myself, but to my community to share my gift, which is education through food,” Starling stated.
One of Starling’s goals is to reach people in the most vulnerable areas and create a lasting impact through Cooking 4 Cost.
Starling uses a direct approach by immersing herself into the Dallas community.
“I live in this community of color and I feel like it’s no one else’s job, but the people within that community to shine the light on what they’re doing,” Starling said.
Currently, one can find Cooking 4 Cost serving food once a month at the Goodwork co-working space in Dallas. Being part of this space has allowed Starling to not only hone her skills as a chef and business owner, but also learn how to create food for those with major food allergies.
According to Starling, Cooking 4 Cost is about making sure everyone is included in the process of eating, cooking, and shopping.
So, when a woman at Goodwork approached Starling about creating a dish without corn and grains, Starling was thrilled to create something for her.
This motivated Starling to continue experimenting with diverse ingredients to better serve those with allergies.
Starling also gained an opportunity to cook for a summer dance program designed for children of color and underrepresented communities in Dallas.
She remembers a fulfilling moment at the summer program when a young girl who disliked carrots, ate them in the frito pie Starling provided for the program’s lunch one day.
“I shoved all these vegetables into the ground turkey meat, like ground carrots, celery, onions, peppers and garlic. It was amazing because they all kept clearing their bowls and wanted more,” Starling said excitedly.
Starling knows she won’t be able to change everyone, but takes comfort in the fact that people, especially children and parents, are being receptive to what she is sharing.
Receiving that kind of positive feedback confirmed to her the kind of impact Cooking 4 Cost was making.
“I was able to nourish them without them knowing and they were receptive to it…I feel like I’ve made a difference in every single one of their lives,” Starling said.
When Starling began Cooking 4 Cost, she didn’t have any equipment. Due to her experience and connections in the restaurant industry, Starling was able to obtain more than 75% of her inventory without actually asking for it because the donors truly believed in her message.
Her former boss, co-workers, and friends contributed to Starling’s pop-up kitchen. They provided things like pots, pans, and utensils necessary to cook and distribute the food.
“I realized there are people who believe in me more than I believe in myself,” Starling said.
When asked how the name for Cooking 4 Cost was conceived, Starling credits the moment to a collaborative effort between herself and a friend this past winter.
“Your food is so good. You should start charging me [and] stop giving me free food because cooking costs money,” Starling’s friend said.
The name for Cooking 4 Cost was created in December 2018, while the business didn’t establish itself until March 2019. After creating an Instagram account for the business and spreading awareness through friends and early supporters, Starling began seeing a growth with Cooking 4 Cost.
By early May, Cooking 4 Cost gained a full schedule leading into the fall of 2019.
This September, they were invited by a Collective of Plant-Based Culinarians of Color, the Afri Plant-Based Collective, to pop-up at the African Festival of the Arts in Chicago, Illinois.
Additionally, Cooking 4 Cost will be featured at Mudhen Meat and Greens restaurant in Dallas as two of its cookies become a seasonal menu item.
“The thing that keeps me doing this work is the fact that I have faith it’s gonna make a difference. Even if it’s just one person’s life. That means something to me,” Starling said.
“I want to help people understand you don’t have to just shop in the aisles with the packaged food,” Starling continued.
As Cooking 4 Cost continues to grow, Starling wants to focus on involving more of the POC community by hosting cooking classes in the DFW area for people of all ages, creating grocery store tours, and developing a personalized grocery shopping experience.
“I feel [that] in 20 years I could look back and say, hey, I started this company. I found all of these organizations, and we started all of these programs,” Starling said proudly.
For more information or private inquiries, visit @cooking4cost on Instagram.