Smoky flavors off the grill wafted from outside into the Gruening Park Recreation Hall on Wednesday evening. The place was a bustle of children laughing and playing while their parents chatted at tables. Everyone had come to celebrate the accomplishments of adult GED students, English Language Learners, and the young graduates of a special “Kids Can Cook” program. All these programs are part of The Learning Connection (TLC), the adult and family literacy division of Alaska’s Southeast Regional Resource Center (SERRC).
The spring barbecue offered the usual picnic fare of hot dogs and potato salad, but fresh vegetables and fruits also made their way onto the plates of kids and adults alike. Amber King, the program’s nutritional support professional, watched over the fruit kebab table.
“It’s great to see the kids making good choices tonight,” she said as she helped a child carefully stack jewel-colored grapes, strawberries, and melon chunks onto a skewer. For variety, the kids also added slices of ham and chunks of cheese. This tasty creation was one of many recipes featured at the 12-week nutritional literacy program at the after-school homework clubs at both Gruening Park and Cedar Park.
A grant from the Crossett Foundation helped fund the program along with other community partners including the Alaska Housing Development Corporation, the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, and the Southeast Alaska Food Bank. The cooking program was envisioned, planned, and coordinated by TLC family literacy instructors Lu Seapy at Gruening Park and Taralee Ellis at Cedar Park. King, SERRC teachers, and community volunteers also assisted with the effort. Seapy and Ellis designed the program to teach the importance of healthy eating through nutrition lessons and basic food preparation.
“Snacks are always part of the homework club, but having the kids prepare the food themselves reinforces healthy messages,” Seapy said.
Sisters Maria and Julissa Aguilar enjoyed making aprons, which they were wearing at the family night. “We got to use paint and glitter to put our names on them,” said Maria. One of the recipes she liked was making her own cereal mix. Being involved in food preparation was an important part of learning about healthy foods.
Julissa, who won the perfect attendance award, said of the program “We’re big kids now because we know how to make our own food.”
Part of the program was to help kids distinguish between healthy and unhealthy snack choices. At the event, Steven Larsen, wearing his personalized cloth apron, explained what he learned.
“It’s healthy not to eat too much junk food,” he said. “I got silver teeth from eating too much sugar, and my stomach gets upset.”
He said that his favorite recipe from the class was called ants on a log.
“You put peanut butter on celery and then put chocolate chips or raisins on top.”
Steven’s friend Delaney Hustead said his favorite activity was the week of St. Patrick’s Day.
“When we came, they had all these green foods, like broccoli, celery, cucumbers, and grapes in green Jell-O. It was really fun!”
Hustead said that this summer, he wants to continue cooking.
“I want to make my mom something that she likes to eat,” he said.
At Cedar Park’s TLC program, Ellis said rainbow fried rice was a big hit.
“The kids added vegetables themselves that represented all the colors of the rainbow,” she said. “The kids were so excited to show their parents what they had made.”
Jenny Reed, the lead teacher at Cedar Park’s TLC noticed a difference in the kids’ eating habits.
“At the beginning of the year, there were certain foods that no one touched, especially vegetables,” she said. “By the end of the year, those foods were getting eaten.”
Ida Barnack, a long-time volunteer at Gruening Park, thought the kids did a great job during the program.
“They were eager to learn and do all the measuring and mixing for the recipes,” she said.
Involving kids in the kitchen not only helps them to learn about preparing foods and kitchen safety, but it also teaches them reading and math skills.
At the family night, Jong Oh noticed the same thing. She said that the program has helped her son, Joseph, to try different foods.
“Throughout the program, the kids were so enthusiastic. Their faces lit up when they found out that they were going to learn to make food for themselves,” Seapy said. “We tried really hard to make sure the foods were nutritious but also kid-friendly and fun.”
Iliana Lopez and her two children Erica and Angel also attended the family night in celebration of her recent accomplishment.
“I just got my citizenship,” Iliana said. “I learned English here at the center, and they helped me a lot. I am very grateful to them.”
Lopez said that she hopes her children will attend the cooking class next year.
At the end of the family night, each child presented their parents a cookbook they had made of all the recipes they learned.
“We expected to have 30 students in the class, but we ended up making around 40 cookbooks, so we had more participants than originally anticipated,” Seapy said.
Seapy said they plan to do the kids cooking program again in the new school year, but funding next time will be a challenge.
“A major federal funding source for TLC has been eliminated, so we are seeking ongoing support to keep the program vibrant and strong,” Seapy said.
Joan Pardes, SERRC’s communications director said that TLC will be looking for corporate sponsors in order to ensure adequate funding.
Seapy recalled one more tale from leading the kids on their culinary adventures.
“They made bagel faces using vegetables that kids are famous for not eating, she said.”
The kids spread cream cheese on the bagel and then gave it olive eyes, a carrot nose, a tomato mouth, and alfalfa sprouts for hair. To her surprise, the kids ate everything plus a little extra.
“Kids were asking for seconds of alfalfa sprouts! When you have kids asking for seconds on alfalfa sprouts, you know your program has been a success,” she said.
For more information about the cooking program or to support funding, contact Joan Pardes 523-7246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau. She can be contacted at email@example.com