ln a brightly lit classroom at Salazar Elementary School, two dozen 9- and 10-year-olds wield knives, have direct access to large amounts of flour and crowd in tight groups around three small tables, vying for a turn to take part in a single activity. The weird thing is, they’re all perfectly well-behaved.
It’s a Cooking with Kids class, a program in the Santa Fe Public Schools that serves 4,400 kindergarten to sixth-grade students who come from low-income areas in Santa Fe. Today, under the instruction of Food Educator Linda Apodaca and Program Director Jane Stacey, the kids are learning about Italian food—not to mention the geography of Italy and a brief history of wheat in general. The best part of the lesson is, of course, the food: fresh-made green and white fettuccine, tomato-basil sauce made from scratch, and a heaping side of green salad. In other words: not Olive Garden.
Since 1995, Cooking with Kids has expanded from a few teachers pushing around a cart with a hot plate to a full-fledged phenomenon. A few of Santa Fe’s schools—Salazar included—have classrooms completely dedicated to Cooking with Kids, equipped with full kitchens and plenty of room for the academic portion of the class. Stacey and Apodaca have developed three curricula (one for kindergarten and first grade, one for second and third grades, and one for fourth to sixth grades) and have put together an extensive textbook full of recipes, history lessons and basic nutrition, all in both English and Spanish.
Pretty much every day of the week, somewhere in Santa Fe, the two women lead bands of roving elementary students in an activity that most adults won’t even tackle alone: cooking.
Stacey, whose background includes having worked with Martha Stewart (whom she calls “Martha” in casual conversation—seriously), has always been into food. The plight of the family dinner particularly tugs at Stacey’s advocacy heartstrings, as she raised two kids of her own and always sat down to family dinners. She jumps at any opportunity to influence whether or not Santa Fe’s kids go home to eat home-cooked meals with their parents each night.
However, teaching the kids about food is only half the battle. The loss of family dinners hasn’t happened overnight; many of the kids’ parents never knew the relative luxury of sitting down for an evening meal either.
“Something I hear a lot,” Stacey says, “is, when we pull out measuring cups: ‘Oh, my grandma has those’ or ‘My grandma has a garden.’” In other words, cooking supplies, fresh food and the time to cook are not one, but two generations behind today’s kids.
Conveniently, then, Cooking with Kids also attracts more than 1,000 parent volunteers each year (some of which are professional chefs in Santa Fe’s finest restaurants—though that’s an exception, not a rule; most parents who volunteer are merely human). Stacey attributes the large parent involvement to an activity that appeals to everyone; asking parents to help out in an English class or to coach soccer may not be the most attractive option to them, but cooking is something everyone can appreciate. Plus, there’s eating involved.
“I have had parents come to me and say, ‘There’s no three-fourths measuring cup,’” Stacey says. When the class not only helps a parent get comfortable with the kitchen but also teaches the kids just how much awesome stuff can be made at home, Cooking with Kids does double duty.
The two-hour cooking classes—which kids take part in approximately every five weeks—may be the most hands-on portion of Cooking with Kids’ involvement in the schools, but it doesn’t end there. The program also includes one-hour tasting classes; for example, in February, students tasted four different kinds of fresh pears. Furthermore, the food from Cooking with Kids also makes its way into school cafeterias. After the pear-tasting class, the cafeteria worked the fruit into its menu. The green and white fettuccine the kids are making had been served for lunch the previous day. It’s an all-fronts food assault.
Even as kids are whipping up meals out of fresh vegetables and ingredients (provided by Just the Best produce company and Whole Foods Market—two companies Stacey nearly gets teary-eyed talking about), they may not necessarily realize just how fully the food has been integrated into their school. But that’s OK—the eating is the most influential part anyway.
As for the food? Apodaca counts 33 people in the room, and all 33 get a plate of pasta and salad. The pasta is as tender as butter and the salad crunches marvelously under a coating of mustard vinaigrette. Once those two courses are gone, many of the kids run up to the serving table with their plates and spoon the remaining tomato-basil sauce into their mouths, straight-up.
As the class finishes the meal, it’s time for clean-up. The massive bowl of greens is gone, and a boy in an oversized blue apron holds up the butt of a cucumber. “Should I throw this away?” he asks the parent volunteer at his table.
“Yes,” the parent says.
The boy stops, looks at the vegetable, considers it for a moment, then takes a massive bite. A smile crosses his face and he nods in approval.