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Cooking Classes in Michigan Are Changing Kids Lives

It’s always a delight learning about like-minded organizations, individuals, and programs. That’s why, when we heard about Flint Kids Cook, we were excited to share what they’re doing with our readers. Flint Kids Cook was initiated in October 2017 as a six-week program for children (ages 8 to 14 years) at the Flint Farmers’ Market in Flint, Michigan. Created by Dr. Amy Saxe-Custack and Sean Gartland (Culinary Director at Flint Farmers’ Market), the program, facilitated by a chef and registered dietitian, is designed to allow children to actively participate in chopping, peeling, measuring, mixing, roasting, and sautéing fresh, healthy foods while learning about the importance of nutrition.

Nearly 150 students have graduated from the program and most are Flint youth. Preliminary research on their program shows positive changes in cooking skills, attitudes toward cooking, and health-related quality of life among participants. Dr. Saxe-Custack presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies Conference in April 2019 and several pediatricians recommended that they share their story and program with ChopChop Family. We now share a bit about their program with you. Learn more about Dr. Saxe-Custack and how kids are cooking and learning life skills in Flint, Michigan!

1. Can you tell us a bit about who you are and about Flint Kids Cook? 
In addition to my role as a registered dietitian and assistant professor of nutrition within the Division of Public Health at Michigan State University in Flint, I am a longtime resident of the Flint community and continue to live here with my husband and three children. Together, we manage a farm that has been in my family for over 100 years. It is changing a bit now to include organic produce, a hoop house, and chickens. My children love to be involved in all aspects of growing, preparing, and eating fresh foods, and their particular love of cooking is what motivated me to create Flint Kids Cook. 

The Division of Public Health at MSU is conveniently located next door to the downtown Flint Farmers’ Market, the primary site for Flint Kids Cook. When I had the idea for the program, I walked across that parking lot and met with Sean Gartland, an accomplished chef and culinary director at the Flint Farmers’ Market, to explain my idea. He immediately agreed to partner on the project and worked with me to develop the curriculum and recipes for Flint Kids Cook. Chef Sean taught the first year of the program with a registered dietitian from Hurley Children’s Center, a large pediatric clinic that is located within the farmers’ market building.  We knew almost immediately that we had created something very special. 
After one year, the program has expanded to a second site in Flint where children from 8 to 18 years of age actively participate in measuring, mixing, peeling, chopping, sautéing, and baking a variety of foods. While the goal of the program is to help children understand the importance of proper nutrition while preparing healthy foods, it is evident through the continual laughter and smiles that kids are also having a lot of fun. 

The program, which currently has a waiting list of over 50 children, spans six weeks (one session per week). The first five weeks focus on USDA’s MyPlate, with children preparing two dishes that highlight a specific food group during each 90-minute session. The last week in the series is a celebration with families that gives children the responsibility of designing, preparing, and serving the meal. These celebrations have grown to include not only siblings and parents but also teachers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. We are evaluating the program, which includes measuring changes in dietary patterns and cooking skills as well as talking with caregivers and children about their experiences with Flint Kids Cook. We continue to modify the program based on their feedback.

2. Do you have any advice for kids just learning to cook and who may be nervous? Or who haven’t learned but want to?

I find kids to be much more adventurous in cooking than most adults I know. I believe that experimentation with foods when we are young and an introduction to different cooking methods are important steps to reducing anxiety around cooking when we are adults. I also believe that many caregivers are more comfortable with their children in the kitchen after taking a class like Flint Kids Cook. 

There was one little boy in our class who had an accident with his microwave at home before joining the program. His mom told me that she was reluctant to let him back into the kitchen until he started Flint Kids Cook. During the program, however, her son reiterated that he was learning what to do in the kitchen from a “real chef” and needed to practice. The program, she believed, made all the difference.
We are lucky to have the farmers’ market as a site for Flint Kids Cook because many chefs, who have restaurants and food stands within the farmers’ market, visit the class to taste whatever the children have prepared. They talk with the kids about cooking more at home and even pursuing a career in culinary arts. Many of our participants are not only less nervous about cooking after graduation but also very interested in cooking as a career.

3. What’s one of the favorite foods to cook in class and why?
The children each have different favorites. Some love the teriyaki green beans or apple crisp, while others prefer the chicken tacos. There is a unique recipe, Fruity Rice, that combines brown rice with sweet potatoes, pears, and several other fresh ingredients. We heard from numerous parents that their children refused sweet potatoes altogether until they prepared and tasted this recipe. I recall one parent sharing her complete surprise when her daughter specifically requested sweet potatoes as they made their grocery list. The parent told me that she couldn’t believe her ears because her daughter would not even allow sweet potatoes on her plate before the class.
In addition to focusing on cooking skills and nutrition education, Flint Kids Cook has been successful in encouraging children to try new foods (and those that were previously rejected). Although children have different preferences during the class, everyone tastes everything. Children begin to understand, as they cook, that even familiar foods prepared in an unfamiliar way taste a little different. They, too, are often surprised at how much they actually like a food that they refused to eat before the class.

4. What are some of your most memorable cooking moments?

Last year we were able to partner with Michigan School for the Deaf in Flint to offer Flint Kids Cook at the farmers’ market exclusively for students. Administrators shared that many of the children who enrolled in the class had never been exposed to a cooking class. Many of the students lived in the dorms at Michigan School for the Deaf, returning home on the weekends. Students were very engaged in all of the classes and would frequently “argue” a bit about who would get to take food home to their parents for the weekend. All children were able to share a sample of their creations with their families.
In addition to attending Flint Kids Cook, many of the children from this particular group were also excited to visit all the vendors within the market. A farmers’ market tour is included in Flint Kids Cook, and this was a particularly enjoyable experience for children from Michigan School for the Deaf, many of whom had never been to a farmers’ market. Using sign language, children would excitedly point out fish and other fresh foods to their interpreters.

5. How do you use ChopChop in the Flint Kids Cook program?
We are so excited to include ChopChop as part of our curriculum for families in October. We will share the website, recipes, tips, and activities from the organization and provide families with the publication to further encourage cooking at home. We’ll also be researching the impact of ChopChop in the Flint Kids Cook program.

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