Students trickle in and settle into folding metal chairs. Some pull out their notebooks. Others slouch back in their chairs with arms folded or whisper into their cellphones. A few head outside to smoke.
It looks like a typical high school class - except the kids are snacking on red grapes, whole-wheat crackers and slices of cheese.
These students are taking a six-week course called "Cooking for Life," a collaborative creation of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger and the University of Vermont Extension. The goal of the class - at Joseph's House on Allen Street in Burlington - is to provide health information and cooking lessons for those who are at high risk for poor nutrition. Today's group, aged 15 to 22, is from the Cherry Street campus of the Community High School of Vermont, which serves youth who are involved with the correctional system or have had trouble fitting in at mainstream high schools. For $3000 per "session," VCTECH works with schools, social programs or other groups to put the course together; they help their "partners" find space, personnel and food.
This is the first time Community High School has participated in "Cooking for Life," and its vocational coordinator, Nikki Marabella, is excited about "the way that the students work in teams, have fun, laugh . . ." when they're here. She notes that because the class is hands-on, "they're on task for a longer period of time . . . and they keep coming back."
Louise Brunelle, a nutritional educator from UVM Extension, starts the class with a discussion of last week's homework. Students were asked to keep track of the number of servings of whole grains they consumed in the course of a week. They have one pressing question: Do cereal bars count?
Brunelle and Molly Stone, who is training to be a nutritional educator herself, scour the long list of ingredients on a bright-red package provided by one of the students. They determine that the small quantity of whole oats contained in the bar doesn't qualify it as a whole-grain food. They also point out a number of detrimental ingredients - partially hydrogenated soybean oil, artificial vanilla flavor, caramel color, red dye #40. The kids respond with a collective groan.
The nutritional activities continue. Stone uses cards with pictures of different types of food to show how much healthy stuff you can eat if you cut out just one high-cal fast-food meal - the caloric equivalent of a burger and fries is a heaping plate of nutritious fare. Brunelle uses bags of flour to demonstrate how much calcium a healthy adult has in his or her bones versus an adult with osteoporosis. One young man gets nervous about his calcium intake, and asks if he can make up for it by drinking more milk now. She assures him that consuming more calcium is always helpful.
Everyone perks up when it's time to cook. A few students head into the kitchen where Chef Adam Soldan, a New England Culinary Institute student volunteer, gets them started chopping mushrooms, mincing garlic and stirring tomato sauce. Another group blends low-fat yogurt, bananas, orange juice and frozen berries in a blender to make purple smoothies. The third group whips up a batch of whole-wheat muffins, also with frozen fruit. The room quiets down as everybody concentrates on the tasks at hand. Chef Soldan bounces around the kitchen, making sure that each student has all of the help he or she needs.
Mike Cruz, 17, jokingly threatens to burn the tomato sauce. He isn't a big fan of cooking, but he loves to eat. He likes food so much that when asked to name a favorite meal, he can't. "I love calzones one night, I love steak the next night, I love pizza the next night..."
Cruz is taking the "Cooking for Life" class mainly to get a health credit, and is happy that it is "chill, laid-back," as he describes the experience. But he's not as thrilled about the nutrition part. "If it's too healthy, like a nasty Nutrigrain Bar, I don't like it," he confesses. "And I hate those round things - rice cakes."
Throughout the class, several other students echo the anti-health-food sentiment. One young lady, when explaining why she eats every meal at Dunkin' Donuts, yells out, "It all tastes so good."
Nicole Edwards, 19, is more interested than some in learning how to create a balanced diet. She's pregnant and currently lives at the Lund Family Center. There, she has access to a kitchen and prepares most of her food - although she likes going out to The Olive Garden with her mother and grandmother. Unlike Cruz, Edwards has an easy time coming up with a favorite food - she loves shrimp Alfredo with spaghetti.
Edwards enjoys baking, and cites cardamom bread as one of her favorite recipes. Her uncle, a chef, taught her much of what she knows about cooking. She's attending "Cooking for Life" to fill in some of the gaps. For example, she was surprised to learn about the prevalence of high-fructose corn syrup in processed products, and hadn't realized that eating lots of it is unhealthy. "This stuff really helps me," she says, "I'm going to have to make sure the baby gets nutritional meals . . . this is not just for high school, but for life outside."
Dustin Larrabee, 20, has been cooking outside of school for seven years. He's currently employed at Zachary's. Even though cooking is fun for him and his employers treat him well, Larrabee says, "Sometimes these fast-food places get to me." He was disillusioned when he learned how much of the food served in pizza places is pre-made. "If I were to get into culinary school, I'd look at cooking in a different way," he says. "I'd be more excited about the recipes." Larrabee also longs for "something more professional" where he could make a higher wage.
His love of cooking seems to come from his family. Larrabee enjoys his mother's cooking, and his grandma was an inspiration for him - he beams with pride when he mentions her. "My grandmother wasn't very wealthy, and she used to go to the food shelf to get her groceries. But she could make something up out of whatever was around - out of nothing - and it was always great."
For a while Larrabee thought he'd be able to go to a vocational culinary school, but the application process was too lengthy. "I went back to regular work because I needed the money," he says. But Chef Soldan has encouraged him to consider his options. The class has been good for Larrabee in other ways, too. He's learned about the dangers of cross-contamination, and laughs when he mentions that this wasn't something he learned in the restaurant business.
This is one of 60 "Cooking for Life" courses VCTECH has organized this year. Last summer, the Intervale Foundation offered the program to 19 at-risk kids through the Healthy City youth entrepreneurship project. These youngsters had a head start in learning about food because they'd spent the summer growing vegetables and selling them at farmers' markets. When they made veggie lasagna, they got to use vegetables they'd grown. Many of the graduates are still cooking.
Jonathan Williams, 15, says he "didn't really like cooking at first." But as he learned how to measure, chop and follow recipes, he started enjoying himself. This fall, when his high school, CP Stepping Stones, asked if any students were interested in a culinary class, Williams jumped at the chance. Now he gets to "cook more vegetarian foods" for the kids at his school, and his mom is "happy that she doesn't have to make supper every night." Williams has also learned to love cherry tomatoes, which he used to dislike.
Jenn McGowan, the Healthy City program director, found it even more surprising when some of the kids, such as 15-year-old Rebecca Deso, learned to like kale and chard. Deso says she "thinks about nutrition more" when she goes shopping now, and recently tried some new recipes - chicken and veggie stir-fry, and apple yogurt pancakes.
Ivah Kenyon, 14, is big on breakfast food, too. Before taking "Cooking for Life," she says, "all I could cook was bacon and eggs."
Back at the cooking class, the lasagna has been inhaled despite the lack of meat, and kids are picking up grocery bags full of supplies so they can practice their newfound skills at home. A few kids leave their ingredients behind, and Marabella offers the extras to those who are likely to use them. Dustin Larrabee is happy to take two bags - he plans to make a double batch of lasagna for his family tonight.
Anyone interested in volunteering for "Cooking for Life," call Karen Dolan at 865-0255, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.