Kitchen classroom empowers young chefs to pursue healthful choices

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.


Editor's note: Due to closures because of COVID-19, educators are moving SNAP-Ed programming to alternative learning platforms.


What happens when a group of teens taste recipes they prepared themselves from whole grains, fresh vegetables, and homemade vinaigrette? They want to have more than one taste.


At least that’s what happened during a recent session of The Learning Kitchen (TLK), a hands-on cooking and nutrition education program for middle schoolers held on Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s (KVCC) Healthy Living Campus and offered through a partnership between KVCC and Bronson Healthcare.

A group of happy The Learning Kitchen participants.

“We thought the students might be picky and unwilling to try new foods but they wanted to taste everything,” laughs Lizzie Luchsinger, program coordinator in Community Culinary and Nutrition at KVCC.


TLK, which originated from Hunger Free Vermont, is designed to educate youth about the MyPlate food guidance system and to teach them to plan, shop for, and prepare (definitely their favorite part!) healthy meals and snacks on a limited budget. Healthy appetites for fresh, nutritious, locally-sourced foods are also desired outcomes of the six-week TLK series.


TLK is funded by a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) grant from the Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. MFF offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations to conduct SNAP-Ed nutrition education like TLK, as well as community change work, throughout Michigan.


Courage in the kitchen leads to trying new foods


Each TLK session begins with an hour of nutrition education in the culinary theater of KVCC’s Culinary and Allied Health Building.

Students prepare food.

“The curriculum includes plenty of hands-on nutrition education activities to keep the kids engaged,” says Ava Daly, SNAP-Ed educator. “The students learn about USDA’s MyPlate, nutrients in specific foods, why they need to eat healthy foods, and how to keep food safe.”
Then they move to the community kitchen where kids get to practice washing, slicing, dicing, and cooking the healthy foods they just finished learning about. “The students absolutely love it,” Daly says.


Students donned hairnets and aprons and worked in groups of two at workbenches in the culinary kitchen to make healthy recipes. Rather than imprint a few rigid cooking instructions, Daly and Luchsinger, who has a culinary background, worked to empower their students with basic kitchen and food prep skills they can use for a lifetime and share with their friends and families.

Students chop vegetables.

“We know from research that the more we expose people, especially youth, to different foods in a variety of ways, the more likely they are to eat them,” explains Chris Flood, Bronson health education supervisor and SNAP-Ed program director. “The students aren’t just tasting new foods made by someone else. They’re tasting foods they learned about and made themselves, and that’s one of the research-based strategies to creating behavior change in kids.”


“We cooked things that were new to them, like a basic grain bowl,” says Luchsinger. “It’s one of those kitchen sink recipes that I love. Everyone’s home pantry contains different foods, and a grain bowl – piled high with veggies – is a great opportunity to show that you don’t always have to follow a recipe.”


Daly and Luchsinger were both surprised by the students’ enthusiasm for tofu, an ingredient Daly put out on a lark. “We teach that tofu is an affordable protein, so we taught them how to bake it. All but one student loved it. They were raving about it for weeks. I was shocked,” Daly says.

A student shops at Bronson Hospital's micro-grocery.

For the final session, the entire class trekked across the Bronson Healthy Living Campus to the micro-grocery located in the Bronson Hospital building. Armed with $10 gift vouchers donated by the Bronson Health Foundation, and a challenge to spend their food dollars wisely using the skills they learned in the program, the students proved they had learned some essential budgeting skills for healthy living, says Daly.


Side benefits add value


“More than a simple cooking class for kids, TLK is designed to teach teens how to make healthier food choices for life,” explains Flood. “Our 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) revealed that Kalamazoo residents want better access to healthy food, and more education about how to prepare it. Our SNAP-Ed grant made it possible for Bronson to partner with KVCC, our local experts, to address those needs and desires.”


TLK program coordinators also recognized that the unique “test kitchen” environment on a community college campus made the experience attractive to the young participants.


During the series, many of the kids, who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods in Kalamazoo, tried on the concept of being a college student, gaining a culinary education in a state-of-the-art learning environment, says Daly.


“Being on a real college campus made the kids excited about potentially continuing their education after high school, and they learned about some of the incredible resources KVCC has for its community,” she says.

One student added a number to the ranking scale to express their love for whole wheat bread.

To gauge program effectiveness, the students completed assessments at the beginning of the program and then again at the conclusion. Luchsinger admits that while it’s a challenge to get a true understanding of the longer-term effects so early in the program, she feels confident about TLK’s value in creating sustainable change. Because many of the students' parents stayed for at least the nutrition lesson portion of each class, they were also exposed to education that may influence their families' dietary habits. And every session was a chance for program coordinators to learn more about the community they serve.


KVCC and Bronson hope to continue presenting TLK when it is once again safe to do so following the coronavirus pandemic, but in the meantime, they plan to provide virtual instruction through short, fun cooking videos they are developing. This will offer the added advantage of being able to reach even more kids at one time.


TLK aligns with KVCC's goals by engaging community youth in “innovative, engaging, and experiential culinary and nutrition education" and improving overall community health outcomes as a result. Produce for the program comes from local sources including KVCC’s ValleyHUB, a multipurpose center focused on sustainable local agriculture, further underscoring the value of the partnerships that make this program possible.


Luchsinger says, “Bronson’s CHNA demonstrated residents’ desire for culinary and nutrition education in our community. We are grateful for our partnership with Bronson to deliver these services, and MFF for granting the funds to make the dream a reality. We appreciate the commitment of these local and state institutions to support the Kalamazoo community.”
Photos courtesy of KVCC.


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