L ocal youths are learning basic kitchen skills and receiving lessons in healthy nutrition one recipe at a time.
Every Friday, Whitehall-area children, ranging in age from four to 12, gather at the Recreation Center and prepare lunch. In the process they learn basic skills such as the proper way to use a kitchen knife, the importance of clean hands, and what constitutes a healthy, balanced meal.
The approximately one-hour class, which is equal parts lecture, interactive cooking lesson, and food tasting, is held once a week at the Rec. Center.
Each Friday, Marie Monty, a Whitehall resident and nutrition program educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Washington County, helps diners prepare their own meals.
“The idea is to impress on them food safety and provide some basic kitchen skills and background,” said Monty, adding that hopefully they can take that knowledge and safely prepare their own meal at home.
“It provides the kids with some background on nutrition, background on safety and how to prepare and eat a meal.”
Participants don’t actually cook — there are too many safety and liability concerns — but they do help prepare the meal each week. For instance the first week students learned how to prepare a salad. Last week students made black bean and corn tacos in a bag. They crushed tortilla chips in a plastic Ziploc bag, added tomatoes and lettuce they each took turns cutting, and then added a mixture of black beans, corn, and balsamic vinaigrette, which Monty had prepared the previous night. A dollop of salsa, a little cheese, and a shake of the bag, and it was time to eat.
Where’s the beef?
Monty said the recipe is often met with blank stares from children who are more accustomed to beef in their tacos than beans and even she admitted to being skeptical at first, but she said it’s a useful teaching tool. For one, it’s easy, but it also gets students to consider different foods and what they put on their plates.
“There are other ways to get protein besides meat,” Monty told the students, while explaining the dangers eating too much fatty meat can have a person’s heart. “It gets them thinking outside of the box. Hopefully it provides them the curiosity to try new things.”
Getting the students to understand what constitutes a balanced and healthy meal is one of the main objectives of the program.
Before eating their tacos, Monty pointed out the different food groups contained in each bag. There were grains, vegetables, a dairy product, protein, and some juice to fulfill the fruit requirement. “It’s a complete meal on a plate,” she said.
Monty said most of the students are familiar with the food pyramid, but fewer understand the newer My Plate initiative, which speaks more to proportionality of each food group and is something they review each week.
A free lunch
The lessons are part of a free summer lunch program that is being offered during the week at the Rec. Center this summer. Four days a week, volunteers and staff at the Rec. Center prepare a basic lunch, consisting of sandwiches, chips and juice for anyone with an appetite.
The program has proven to be quite popular. George Armstrong, town supervisor, said they’ve had as many as 29 kids attend. “I think it has been very successful,” he said.
Although the program is open to any local resident, regardless of age, the intended target is kids, especially those in financial need.
According to New York State 2010-2011 District Report Card, 52 percent of students in the Whitehall School District were eligible for free or reduced lunch. And while the summer lunch program has no income requirements, it’s helping fill the void for some students who may be missing meals while school is out on summer vacation.
The program is being subsidized by donations from local residents, Freihofers, and Green Mountain Produce. Anyone who like to make a donation is encouraged to contact Rec. Center leaders Jack Hoagland or Julie Eagan, or town councilperson Stephanie Safka.
Lunch is typically served shortly after the Rec. Center opens at noon. Reservations are not required. Monty’s program is held every Friday at noon through Aug. 17.