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A student making fresh green & white fettuccine pasta. Photos courtesy of cookingwithkids.org.

Written by Amelia Keleher (SFYN USA Communications Team)

“Our role is to get them excited about cooking and eating a wide variety of foods.” — Rachel Shreve, communications coordinator

Cooking with Kids (CWK) is a non-profit educational program that was founded by Lynn Walters in 1995 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The program works with families, teachers, farmers, and chefs to “educate and empower children and families to make healthy food choices through hands-on learning with fresh, affordable foods.” 

During the 2019-20 school year, over 5,000 children participated in hands-on cooking classes through 17 different schools. Beyond bringing food literacy and nutritious recipes into classrooms and cafeterias, CWK cultivates community, trust, and excitement amongst youth and their families as they try new things and share in the joys of preparing food together. 

 

An Enriching Curriculum 

CWK’s curriculum has undergone a variety of updates since it was first developed by Lynne Walters and Jane Stacy 25 years ago. Yet the focus on reading about food and teaching food literacy has remained a central focus. According to Rachel Shreve, the CWK communications coordinator, “Food access, particularly access to healthy food options, is a complex, multi-layer issue, and this includes food literacy. If families aren’t familiar with certain foods or they aren’t confident their kids will eat them, they are less likely to purchase these foods. Helping students understand a variety of foods, what they taste like, and how to prepare them is an important step in addressing this barrier.”

Rachel began working with the organization as an educator back in 2006 and currently helps with curriculum development and outreach. One of the exciting developments she’s witnessed is how schools have intentionally built or designated a classroom space for the program. Educators no longer have to chip glitter-glue off of tables or carry around a hot plate. Rachel said, “it just goes to show that schools value what we do and that we’ve really become part of the school community.” Rachel works alongside Bethany Muller, the program director who oversees the educators; Anna Farrier, the executive director; and Lily Sheridan, the farm to school coordinator. “Really, we’re kind of all hands on deck,” Rachel said. 

The CWK curriculum is geared towards elementary students, but staff are in the process of developing a curriculum for middle-school students. On any given day, students might be cooking paella and reading about different species of rice or rolling out handmade pasta dough. At the end of the 2019 school year, 5th and 6th grade students participated in a salad challenge, where they collaborated with their teammates to develop, present, and write their own recipes. “It was like Chopped, with our Cooking with Kids Superchefs judging each of the salads,” Rachel said. 

 

Meeting National Standards

What makes the curriculum unique is how it is aligned with math and literacy standards. CWK even received a grant from Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation to match an existing curriculum to Next Generation Science Standards. According to Rachel, “doing that work validates and legitimizes our curriculum, and schools feel empowered and able to justify our presence.” 

Teachers and schools across the country download CWK’s curriculum, which includes several free lesson plans with a Spanish language component. “Our copyright is quite friendly: ‘We get it, we’re educators too.’ Basically, don’t sell this as your own but feel free to make as many copies as you need,” Rachel said, and added: “We know that teachers often spend their own money on curriculum and on accessing resources because it can be so challenging to navigate purchase orders and approval to pay for something.” 

 

Community Impact & Funding

In past years, CWK has had over 1,400 volunteers come into their schools to help. Rachel emphasized how important this is since parental and family involvement has been shown to improve academic performance and contribute to higher levels of attendance, self-confidence, and motivation in the classroom. “That’s one of the reasons that schools want us,” Rachel said. “And because we create a welcoming environment for a lot of family members who may feel intimidated by the academic setting, and it’s a way that they can participate in their child’s education.” 

In the state of New Mexico, 1 in 4 children live in poverty, and 1 out of every 3 eight-year-olds is obese or overweight. CWK works with schools where 50% or more of students qualify for free or reduced meals. For years, 85 to 90% of their budget came from SNAP-Ed, a government program directed at families who are eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. CWK recently managed, however, to secure multiple funding sources to reduce their dependence on SNAP-Ed, which now accounts for just about half of their funding. The other half is supplemented by donations and grants. 

 

Cultivating Trust & Taste 

Rachel emphasized how important it is for kids to have repeated positive experiences with food. CWK is constantly working to support families who want to develop healthy food habits at home. And because many families cannot afford the risk of buying healthy foods only to have their children refuse to eat them, CWK helps by speeding up the process of acceptance through hands-on experiences with food. “It helps [the students] feel ownership around their food,” Rachel said. Additionally, kids are still developing palates, and like adults, they have very strong feelings about food. As Rachel put it, “food is emotional.” CWK strives to create a welcoming, safe, and respectful environment where students learn to articulate their likes and dislikes, without shaming their friends “or just making a gross sound,” Rachel said. “It’s important to acknowledge that what we say and how we behave influences and affects how our friends feel.” 

CWK also discourages coercing or coaxing students to try different foods, since research shows that forcing children to try new foods can actually be counterproductive. It can even make youth more resistant to trying new things or resulting in disordered eating habits as they age, and can also negatively impact parent-child relationships. As Rachel said, “peers influence their peers. Those seven-year-old kids will actually get their friends to eat food more quickly than a grownup will [because] kids trust each other.”

Virtual Classrooms, Dinners, and Gatherings 

When schools went remote back in March, Cooking with Kids immediately transitioned their curriculum to be online. One of their most successful programs was a series of Virtual Family Cooking Nights. “Principals invited their families and sent out recipes with ideas for substitutions. We all signed on to Google Hangouts and the first time we did it, it was kind of incredible,” Rachel said. “At first you couldn’t really tell what was going on in all those little window boxes, but then kids started holding up food they had made and it was just so heartwarming and exciting that families were cooking in their homes together. It was a way of feeling like you’re part of the school community again.” CWK plans to continue these cooking nights when schools resume session this fall. 

CWK hopes to return to in-person classrooms later this fall, but for the first nine weeks, Santa Fe schools will be online. While schools may switch to a hybrid model of remote and in-person, the Santa Fe School Board wants to avoid bringing additional workers into schools. Hence CWK is preparing to run their programs entirely online. They are currently creating virtual tours of farms in the Santa Fe area and adding additional resources to their website to help connect students and their families to food and other items they may need. 

 

Policy Change: How You Can Help

As stated by National Farm to School Network, The COVID-19 pandemic has radically shifted the ways that child nutrition programs operate, with school nutrition professionals working tirelessly to keep feeding kids under emergency conditions and with limited resources. 

Sign this petition to endorse National Farm to School Network’s COVID-19 Federal Policy Platform and support child nutrition programs as well as socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. 

You can also ask your senators to support these proposed policies:

Want to stay inspired by Cooking with Kids? Follow them on Instagram! And for more information, explore their Resources and Lesson Plans.