Program gets kids in the kitchen for some healthy eating

January 4, 2011

By Icoi Johnson

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The last bell signals the end of the school day, but for some Chicago elementary students, the day starts again…but this time in the kitchen. A non-profit has been teaching low-income kids how to cook healthy, affordable meals. The aim is to prevent childhood obesity and develop life long eating habits. WBEZ Pritzker Journalism Fellow Icoi Johnson reports that the program is shifting gears.

MATTHEW/CHILD:  You guys an easy way to get the skin off, it take it underneath your palm and just push down on the garlic, kind of smash it.

The official school day is over at John W. Cook School on Chicago’s Southside. But a group of students are staying behind to learn how to cook.

Jazee Burton explains what’s on the menu.

BURTON: We’re making mango crisp crumble and then we’re making chicken tenders.

The students learn everything, from measuring ingredients, to using a knife…safely.

Jontae Townsend demonstrates a technique called a Bear Claw.

TOWNSEND: We put our fingers and our thumbs tucked in so the knife can just hit our knuckles. 

Burton and Townsend are involved in a program put on by Common Threads, a Chicago non-profit group.

Common Threads uses professional chefs to teach students how to cook. One of those is former sous-chef Matthew Peterson. Peterson says the Common Threads programs gets kids excited about cooking.

That’s important, since a lot of the kids in these schools are familiar with fast food or stuff that can be microwaved.

PETERSON: I want to give other kids a passion for cooking and bring back those skills that a lot of people in my generation and generations younger than me have lost. I don’t know, I just really want to show them that there is a better way to eat that they can take pride in something like cooking.

The Common Threads teaching program has been around for a while. It was founded in 2003 by Art Smith. You might remember him as a former chef to talk show host Oprah Winfrey. 

The program’s gotten a lot of attention over the years for doing good.  There are now hundreds of kids who can use a knife properly and know the ins and outs of baking, frying, and broiling.

But there are tough questions about whether teaching kids to cook well is enough.

Mary Russell Directs Nutrition Services at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

RUSSELL: To help reduce obesity I think we need to hit it from a lot of different prongs. This is a good one, but it’s not going to solve the problem, because it’s only when they’re in school. If they don’t get it reinforced, it would be unlikely to have a lasting impact unless there was the availability of parental support and encouragement.

It turns out Common Threads has been thinking about the same problem, so it is now getting parents more involved. 

Jillayne Samatas is the Education and Outreach Manager at Common Threads. She says they’ve had parents observe their children cooking, but now they’re thinking about getting parents in the kitchen, too.

SAMATAS: It will be a five week series, where we’ll have a parent and child that has been in our cooking class before, come to a class for 2 hours for five weeks following a curriculum that will get to cook together but then also learn some basic nutrition information as well.

Samatas says Common Threads has learned a lot about teaching low-income children about cooking and food. But there’s one lesson that’s a bit depressing. Samatas says a lot of the parents in their program can’t access the kinds of food their children learn to cook.

Sometimes they have to travel miles outside their own neighborhood just to get to full-service grocery stores.

SAMATAS: As much as we realize there is an access problem, our organization isn’t at a capacity right now to address that issue. Our primary role is to teach and educate. But it’s something that we are definitely involved in and trying to understand ourselves how can we help with that issue and it’s really difficult to figure out.

But Samatas says this access issue won’t stop Common Threads from its teaching. She figures the group can’t solve ever food-related problem low-income kids will have…but someone needs to give them the confidence and know-how to run their own kitchens some day.