It’s around dinner time on a warm spring Wednesday in the art room of the Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, and eight small chefs and their mothers are getting ready to cook up a storm. From May 11th until June 15th, these students are taking part in the JFS-Cooking Matters class at Woodrow Wilson provided by Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Metrowest in partnership with Share Our Strength’s Cooking MattersTM and the Metrowest Community Healthcare Foundation.
JFS of Metrowest is heavily involved at the Wilson school. During the school year they partner with the United Way of Tri-Country to run the JFS-United Way of Tri-County All Stars and Wizards program, an after-school program designed to strengthen reading, math and science skills in third and fifth grade students. The past few years have brought continued expansion of the programs at Wilson with the Healthy Harvest and Weekend Nutrition Programs, both of which provide fresh fruits and vegetables to families in need.
The Cooking Matters course is provided free of charge to families at risk of hunger who want to learn how to prepare healthy and affordable meals. Each six-week course is taught by volunteer culinary and nutrition experts and is coordinated by a Cooking Matters Massachusetts staff member. The weekly lessons combine collaborative food preparation—using nutritious, readily available, low-cost, culturally appropriate ingredients—with essential nutrition, food budgeting, and physical activity information that is shared through discussion and activities.
Tonight the kids are learning about healthy snack choices.
“What’s a snack that you eat?” asked Luanne, the nutritionist.
“A Sandwich?” asked Roberto. Roberto has large brown eyes and a kind smile. Tonight he and his mother arrived with a present for the class, a rice and bean dish from Southern Brazil, where his family is from.
“That’s not a snack! That’s a meal!” The other children chime in. They are all eager to participate. The parents, too, arrived excited to share the progress they’ve made in their homes. Two weeks into the course they are already making changes, wheat bread and brown rice in lieu of white, for instance.
“I mixed the brown and white rice together and she never noticed it wasn’t all white,” said Odette, a Wilson parent accompanying her daughter, Evie.
“Well she knows now,” said Michelle, the Cooking Matters instructor. Evie, sitting beside her, smiled a wide, toothy grin. Brown rice is okay by her.
After the lesson in healthy snacking—plain popcorn is okay because it’s a whole grain, the kids race to meet chef Sheryl at the round table. For their first recipe they will tackle trail mix.
The kids take turns adding in their different package of ingredients: Crasins, dried fruit, pretzels, chocolate chips and rice chex. The parents and instructors expected the children to go heavy on the chocolate chips, but surprisingly there is restraint. A small portion of chips tumble into the bowl, just enough to balance out the other elements. The end result is colorful and full of variety—markers of a healthy snack. It looks like a fall day.
After another food lesson with Luanne on deciphering nutrition labels, parents and children are back to the table—this time to make pineapple carrot muffins. The kids are good at sharing. They easily divide up tasks and offer to help Chef Sheryl scoop dough into the silicon muffin trays.
After the muffins go into the oven, the parents sit down with Luanne for a parents-only nutrition lesson, while the kids make fruit smoothies with Chef Sheryl. There are two types of smoothies to be made tonight, with juice or with milk. The children who agree to try a fruit smoothie with spinach will get served first. Most of them volunteer.
“I can’t even taste the spinach!” said Isabelle. She brings it to her mother to try, who after taking a sip scrawls “PERFECT!” on a nametag and hands it back to her.
“Look what my mom wrote Sheryl! She thinks it’s perfect!”
After two batches with Chef Sheryl’s guidance, the kids are allowed to whip up smoothies on their own. They pour and serve to the parents, a frenzied scene of small hands and cups traversing back and forth, awaiting comments from the parents as though there is a grade to be given.
The muffins are finally done. They fill the room with the scent of carrot cake. The art room has become an exquisite bakery where all the workers are nine years old.
The class winds down and grocery bags appear– one for each family containing the ingredients to make trail mix and smoothies at home. It’s the hope of the JFS and Cooking Matters team that kids and parents will not only implement their new knowledge about food, but utilize their newfound cooking skills as well, recreating these recipes in their home kitchens.
It’s clear that the class is changing the way the kids and their parents think about food. For the kids it has made food more exciting. They see the process of what goes into the finished product. They have a clearer picture of what they’re consuming.
For the parents, the course is offering them a unique bonding opportunity with their child and giving them a nutritional education once thought unavailable due to lack of resources and time.
JFS of Metrowest and Cooking Matters has provided something special in the art room at Woodrow Wilson School. This is an education not provided in the classroom, but one that will stay with parents and kids all the same and hopefully influence healthy food decisions for life.
JFS of Metrowest could not provide the services and programs at the Wilson School without generous sponsorship from the following organizations: The Staples Foundation for Learning, TJX Foundation, Foundation for Metrowest/English Family Fund, Eos Foundation, Brack Family Foundation, the Whittaker Fund and individual donations from members of the community.