A mini kitchen has become Iris Carrasco’s classroom, and kids at Oregon’s largest after-school care program are eating up the results.
Spicing up the recipe are hands-on nutritional cooking, kitchen safety, fitness training, family “cook off” competitions, and a vegetable garden created from a former parking lot.
And all of this has been cooked up not far from the Oregon State campus, at the Girls and Boys Club in Albany.
Carrasco, a new OSU Extension nutrition educator last January, saw an unused kitchen, rolled up her sleeves, and whipped up a batch of young cooks eager to make their lives healthier.
School buses bring 250 elementary and 100 middle school students to the Boys and Girls Club every weekday afternoon. Their enthusiasm for Carrasco’s guidance has swelled enrollment and created a waiting list.
The non-profit club has 13 nutrition classes a week, two or three a day, geared for each grade level. The kids scurry to the now-heavily used small kitchen for Healthy Kids Club, knowing that only 10 can cook in the kitchen at one time. And there’s a protocol: clean hands and surfaces, safe handling of knives, aprons and “listen to learn” time before cooking begins.
Then kids dive into making skillet granola, a healthy “make-ahead” dish; not-so-scary cabbage; banana pancakes with whole-wheat flour; and smoothies made with tofu.
Families joined in earlier this year for an Iron Chef competition. Each had 30 minutes to chop vegetables, add spices, and cook and display a complete meal.
The club’s parking lot turned out to be an ideal site for a garden, which draws kids from all grade levels.
“They are genuinely interested,” Carrasco said. “Some are intrigued by the bugs, some love being out in the sun, others like to smell the flowers or get their hands in the dirt. All enjoy growing vegetables they can take home and share with their families.”
Carrasco integrated the Linn County Master Gardener Program into setting up a gardening club, asked a local nursery for donations, and worked weekends to prepare 15 raised-bed plots. In October, families savored the aroma of fresh tomatoes from the new garden as they prepared for a salsa-making “extravaganza.”
Students now work out in the gym for at least 30 minutes in the Healthy Kids Club’s “walk and talk” component, co-taught with the Boys and Girls Club staff. The girls and boys each have their own gym times so they can move at their own pace in a noncompetitive environment, Carrasco said.
The youngsters draw and paint in the well-equipped Food-As-Art room to illustrate, for example, how food is fuel. “They can easily equate a sleek Ferrari and its need for gas with a healthy breakfast,” Carrasco said.
Getting middle school students engaged has been more of a challenge, but Carrasco started “Club Napoleon” (based on Napoleon Dynamite), it continues to grow as the pre-teens follow the same experimental learning model that draws younger kids to the kitchen.
And, the tasty healthy food they cook “keeps them coming back for more,” Carrasco said.
At the club, nutrition takes on a digital flavor with MyPyramid.gov, produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and used in the computer lab by the older students to create personalized eating plans and work with interactive tools to learn about healthy eating.
Carrasco admits to going home feeling exhausted. But, she says, “everyday the kids teach me lessons, and when you look in their eyes, you see they really enjoy being here.”
On the horizon for Carrasco and her young charges? “Food is Cool,” a short musical the students will produce this spring.
~ by Judy Scott