By Melissa Reichley 2017-06-15 12:52:21
Innovative initiatives raise the bar Welcome to the Club! Citizen Chefs are practicing cooking and conversation in this afterschool program. A few months ago, Amanda Warren, school nutrition program supervisor for Staunton City (Va.) Schools, decided to start—and personally lead—an afterschool cooking club at the district’s Shelburne Middle School. “My main objective was to help them develop culinary skills, while teaching team building, food safety and quick healthy recipes that kids this age could prepare on their own,” she explains. She had another goal: Warren was seeking ways to get students in this age group more involved in the school nutrition program. “Middle school is when it starts to get challenging in terms of engaging participation,” she notes. Lunch periods are crunched back-to-back and the cafeteria is thunderous with 550 social 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders. “I wanted to get the kids to come to me and talk, while being engaged in fun cooking and eating, from friend to friend.” In her new Citizen Chefs in Community Café project, the “secret ingredient” Warren added to her lesson plans was intentionally directed mealtime conversation. “At the end of each session, we sat down as a group, ate what we prepared and talked about various topics like food justice, cafeteria concerns, school days, family dynamics, recipe ideas, etc.,” she reports. And by the end of the school year? The project had cooked up a group of more confident tweens who had tried unfamiliar foods, developed new skills and learned there’s more to cooking and eating than breaking eggs or breaking bread. (Did we mention the cake? Keep reading.) Starting From “Scratch” Staunton is a small district, with just six total schools. Warren’s initial idea came when she noticed, as a provider of afterschool snacks, that none of the school’s clubs or enrichment programs focused on food. She asked the principal about forming such a new club—and got the affirmation needed to move forward. Having worked as the general manager of a restaurant prior to joining the school system (with seven years at home with her own kids in between), Warren had some ideas about program structure and the content of the proposed lessons. For example, she wanted the club to follow a schedule in which each week’s lesson built on the previous one. She outlined the curriculum she had in mind, including the skills she sought to teach and recipes that would meet her goals, as well as those conversation topics. She liked the idea of engaging youngsters around the issue of food justice, “talking about access and that it shouldn’t be easier for one group of people than for another.” She heard the term at a professional conference and wanted to raise awareness among her students. Next, she did some online research to see what other school-based or kids cooking clubs were doing. She contacted the local Virginia cooperative extension to learn more about its cooking curricula, as well as discovering some good ideas from the “Let’s Cook” program developed by the Washington State Department of Health. After two weeks of research and planning, Warren had created the Citizen Chefs program, inspired by her own ideas and borrowing a few from existing models. With a curriculum planned for 12 sessions, but not much of a budget to draw on, Warren went into her community and solicited donations to supply the program and get it started. Several area food stores (Food Lion, Kroger and Martins) gave her some seed funds to buy ingredients. TJ Maxx donated money toward the purchase of some basic tools. When the club launched, each student participant would receive a tote bag containing wet and dry measuring cups, measuring spoons, a 5-in. chef’s knife and a small mixing bowl. Warren also purchased black aprons and arranged for each to be embroidered with the student chef’s name as a reward for completing the class. Writing Her Recipe for Success With lesson plans and supplies in hand, Warren was ready to launch the new club in late January 2017. She had a few rules for participation: First, students and their parents had to sign an agreement about committing to the goals of the program, including attending each session (because the lessons were progressive) and trying new foods (unless a physician’s statement confirmed a food intolerance or allergy). The agreement included waiver language about use of cooking tools and appliances. Each student was also given a list of basic responsibilities, such as washing hands, wearing hair restraints, paying attention to details and cleaning up along the way. (Both of these documents are available at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus.) She recruited participants through the morning announcement over the course of a week. Initially, 11 kids, all girls, signed up to take part. Warren expected some attrition, given the basic expectations, and in the end, she worked with five enthusiastic Citizen Chefs. The Culinary Curriculum Lessons were conducted in a fully equipped kitchen and the school cafeteria. For the introductory activity, Warren focused on teaching the youngsters how to read a recipe and do basic mixing. They learned different tools used to measure dry and liquid ingredients and she demonstrated how to read a measuring cup at eye level. The kids learned these skills while making Fast Break Cereal Crunchers (dry cereals rolled with dried fruits and nut butters) and high-protein chocolate shakes. The lesson that introduced knife skills involved slicing apples and making a Yogurt Cinnamon Dip. In a subsequent activity, students made Super Salsa and Groovy Guacamole, slicing onions and tomatoes and chopping cilantro to advance their knife skills. “Some of them who didn’t think they’d like salsa actually did,” Warren reports. In another session, students made tomato sauce from scratch. “That’s when they learned to use the stovetop, how to boil water, how to cook pasta and how to season with fresh herbs,” recounts Warren. “They also learned to roll basil and cut it, rather than tearing and bruising it.” She applied a team-cooking approach to all the lessons. “We got the recipe out; they passed it down the line, taking turns reading the recipe aloud; and they’d choose who did each step,” notes Warren, adding, “There were definitely a few arguments about who got to stir! They, of course, all loved to eat.” The day the students learned to make a salad, with homemade dressing, all from scratch, one of the girls admitted she had never eaten a bell pepper. Warren had brought in parmesan crisps, nuts and dried cranberries for them to try as toppers—and most of the students had never heard of adding such ingredients to a salad. In recognition of the challenging legume requirement for school meals, Warren had her young chefs taste two different types of beans, preparing them different ways. “There was a lot of trepidation about the black beans,” she laughs. The brave bean testers made a Zesty Southwest Black Bean Shaker—a parfait cup mixed with beans, salsa, lettuce, cheese and sour cream—and a Refried Bean Shaker, which was layered with beans, diced tomatoes, salsa, lettuce, cheese and black olives. In addition to prepping these menu items, the kids served as a mini focus group, assessing whether the recipes would be accepted as part of the cafeteria menu. “They got to see what it looked like, whether it was easy to eat, and we asked them whether they would grab it if they saw it on the lunch line.” The Zesty Southwest Black Bean Shaker is now featured on the cafeteria’s menu. While none of the recipes were flat-out bombs, Warren reports that the students had definite opinions. Some of the students disliked the refried beans, suggesting that they would rather have had these in a hot dish than the cold parfait. But highlights included making spaghetti sauce from scratch and preparing quesadillas. Warren used the quesadilla lesson to illustrate how students could break away from recipe specifications and make modifications of their own. “I brought in cream cheese, regular cheese, diced veggies, salsa... Then, I said they could mix whatever they wanted with the taco seasoning, and they made all different combinations. They liked that.” Let’s Chat Warren took the same care in developing the conversation aspect of her club’s curriculum. She had a planned topic for each week. “We talked about nutrition, food justice and family dynamics. I learned a lot about how these students’ families eat. One of the little girls, while we were making cheese quesadillas, said, ‘My Daddy would eat this. He just sits in his chair drinking his soda and he just eats.’” During another conversation, Warren asked what it might look like for someone from their community didn’t live as close to the grocery stores as they do, or if their car is broken down. “Some of the girls said, ‘They could just walk,’” she reports. “Then I asked, ‘How would they get the groceries home?’ and one said, ‘They could use one of the carts.’ The conversations were often eye-opening.” Now, We’re Cooking! Now that the first Community Café program is completed, Warren is already planning for the next one. This time, she intends to offer the program for the entire school year, beginning in the fall. Time and staff permitting, she’s considering adding an advanced course for those who completed the first curriculum. As expected, a few kids did drop out, and Warren heard some complaints about being compelled to try some of the dishes. But her overall experience and that of the class participants was largely positive. “I was impressed with their behavior. Even in the beginning, when the group was larger, they were very respectful of their responsibilities list,” she says. Their sense of teamwork was also notable. “Adults don’t always give middle school students credit where credit is due. But they can cook. You just have to work with them. I think all of them feel a little more confident in who they are, because they know that if they wanted to go home and cook dinner, they could.” She’s also pleased that the students gained a deeper understanding of how their school lunch works at the production level. “They got to see the kitchen and work the equipment. We talked about how we need to sanitize everything and check food temperatures to make sure the food is safe.” Write Your Own Recipe Inspired to consider organizing a student cooking club for tweens in your district? Warren offers some advice: Watch your budget. Warren had a very modest budget to start the class, and she raised additional donations from local retailers. But when the funds ran out halfway through the semester, the remaining balance came from her own pocket. For SY 2017-18, she intends to reach out to more potential partners—and begin sooner. Start early. “Plan everything as early as you can. You can’t just go in there and think you’ll do it as you go,” she warns. Know which rules you’re willing to bend—or not. Warren’s club began with 11 students and finished with five girls. She attributes the drop-outs largely to the fact that she insisted that participants attend all classes (unless they were sick) and try everything (unless they had an allergy). “I hope we can get a slightly larger group next year, but I’m still adamant they need to show up and must try the recipes.” Enlist the support of staff. The middle school’s cafeteria manager enjoyed participating in the club when she could, helping to partner with the students and guide the process. Warren hopes to have more help for the next session—and she plans to poll her managers to see if she has enough helpers to expand the program to offer another beginners class, as well as an advanced course for past “graduates.” Seek community involvement. In addition to cash donations, Warren borrowed thermometers from the local health department. Next year, she hopes to consult with a nearby teaching farm, which also has a cooking club, to see if they would be interested in some joint projects. She hopes to get trained chefs to participate. “Reach out to local restaurants and chefs,” she advises. “I know what I’m doing, but there’s still something about having someone who’s well-known to add to it. See if anyone is interested in participating—or sponsoring the whole thing.” Spread the cheer! Warren documented the group’s activities and shared photographs on her department’s Facebook page (which is how the project came to the attention of School Nutrition). “Academic enrichment programs should be fun,” she notes. Plan the skills and recipes you expect to teach—but be flexible when things inevitably change. The class was supposed to start on January 9 but was delayed by a blizzard, so Warren had to adapt and cut two lessons from her plan. She had also expected to have students cap off the class with an Iron Chef-style cook-off. But as the course progresseds, she realized that, even with months of training, the students didn’t have the skills to cook unsupervised. Next time, Warren plans to find enough adults to assist in the final class, so the students can have a cook-off with ample supervision. Celebrate the finish! For their final class on May 22, the students teamed up for one last cooking project and invited the principal and parents to come celebrate. Warren surprised the kids with a less-healthy recipe than what they’d been learning about and preparing all semester: That’s right, she let them show off their skills by making a cake (chocolate with homemade chocolate ganache icing, fresh strawberries and whipped cream; they got to make their cake—and eat it, too! BONUS WEB CONTENT Welcome to the Club! Check out samples of Warren’s student/parent agreement and list of participant responsibilities, as well as links to the resources she used in planning her curriculum. All are available as part of this month’s online extras. www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus. Melissa Reichley is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md., and the mother of two elementary school boys who love Pizza Fridays.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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