The Heritage Room, in the lower level of Waukesha’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, may seem like any other typical church gathering space. That is, until you see it abuzz with students from an area elementary school learning to prepare delicious and nutritious foods for themselves and their families. Should you visit on a Tuesday afternoon when Kick-Start Cooking for Kids is in session, you’ll be amazed at the learning that takes place, all in well-organized small groups at the hands of dedicated volunteers from the church and the community.
On one such Tuesday, I watched a group of students gathered around a table participating in food group activities. Eve, a community volunteer and owner of Martha Merrell’s Books, integrated literacy concepts into her lesson, which also included recognizing cooking terms and reading a recipe. Across the room, another group put their skills to practical use, working together to read an apple fritter recipe, paring and dicing apples, measuring and mixing ingredients to make batter, frying fritters and dusting them with powdered sugar. Cathy, an adult volunteer, ensured that everyone had a chance to participate in each step, taught them safe handling of cooking tools and techniques, and offered samples to the young chefs.
Volunteers at other tables packaged ingredients in single recipe portions and filled cloth bags, sewn by a community volunteer as gifts for the students. At the end of the evening, the bags would include all of the day’s recipes, as well as the ingredients each cook would need to prepare the foods at home during the week.
In the adjacent renovated kitchen space, I watched groups preparing two other recipes for foods in the fruit and dairy groups. At one table, students were busy grating three kinds of cheeses, then making a cheese sauce and boiling noodles on the stovetop. A volunteer showed them how to tell which knob controlled each burner. Nearby, a student stirred the thickening cheese sauce, inhaled and sighed. “This is really satisfying.” Last, the young chefs combined it all into a Baked Mac and Cheese entree, popping it in the oven to be served later. Another group diced favorite fruits and layered them with yogurt and granola to make perfectly customized parfaits. As students finished activities and waited to begin others, they gathered at a large central table area, chatting, sampling fruits they may not have tried before, and noshing on the results of their after-school labor.
Sitting next to one young lady as she scraped the last of her parfait from her cup, I asked, “How do you eat all this and then go home and have supper?”
“Oh, I don’t,” she said with a smile. “I’m pretty full by the time I leave here.”
The next week, when vegetables were the featured food, students tasted brightly colored peppers, cauliflower, sweet potato, butternut squash, jicama, brussel sprouts, parsnips and cucumbers, dipping them in hummus or ranch dressing. Eve introduced them to chips made from root vegetables, one of her favorite snacks.
Yarely, a fifth grader seated nearby, shared why she got involved in Kick-Start Cooking. “I wanted to learn how to cook for my family,” she explains. “I already bake with my mom. I wanted to learn how to cook, also.”
Heidi, age 11, sat at the table enjoying a vegetable wrap she made with beans, broccoli, lettuce and cheese. “I can’t stop eating it,” she said. “It tastes so good!”
Kick-Start Cooking Program Coordinators, Kris Fahje and Chris Keadle, took some time out to tell me more about the program. It began as a grass roots initiative by members of First Congregational UCC as “a first step to assist children and their families by teaching some cooking life skills as a means to break the cycle of poverty.” Goals of the program include exposing the children and their families to new and healthy foods, teaching them about balanced nutrition, exercise and food preparation skills, and providing fun with peers while building positive relationships with adults.
Five different four-week sessions are held during each school year. (The session I observed was the 29th session since the program began.) Schools are chosen based on the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced school lunches. Kris, a retired guidance counselor explained, “The decision about who participates from each school is entirely up to the school social workers. They know the students and their families. We try to keep the groups small by taking fifteen students. But, for this session, the permission slips were sent home on Friday, and by Monday we already had eighteen back! We couldn’t turn anyone away, so we have eighteen this time.”
Volunteers include church members, students from nearby Carroll University, and community members who hear about the program through civic presentations. They arrive a half-hour before the students, who are transported by bus after school. The volunteers busy themselves preparing samples of the food group of the day and organizing their stations for the activities they plan to lead. Cindy, a retired teacher and church member, volunteers because, as she says, “I just love working with kids.” She has high praise for the organization and the efficiency of the program.
Wendy, a community volunteer, found out about the program through a friend, who learned about it at a Practical Club presentation. She sees its potential to affect lives. “This is just such a great program. It could benefit so many people.”
As you can imagine, the costs of a program like this one are considerable. “Expenses range between $1200 and $1500 for each four-week session,” said Kris. “We do five sessions each year and one during the summer, if we can.” At present, Kick-Start Cooking is funded without being a part of the church budget. The program relies heavily on individual donations and has benefitted from several large corporate donations and grants. Kris expressed gratitude for grants from the Waukesha County Community Foundation and from Neighbors in Need, as well as a generous gift card from the Meijer Foundation. The program is worth the price tag, however. At the Plowshare Gala last year, Kick-Start Cooking for Kids received the 2019 Peace Builders Award.
When picking up their children, parents get a chance to sample the results of the night. A mother of one participant told me, “This is a great program!” Then she shared that her son has always been interested in cooking shows, but since he’s been in Kick-Start Cooking, he has made some of the recipes for his family every week. He even went over to his great-grandma’s house to make one of his specialties! His sister isn’t old enough yet, but is looking forward to participating next year.
If you are interested in learning more about Kick-Start Cooking for Kids, have questions about the program, or would like to help, please contact Kris Fahje at email@example.com or Chris Keadle at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations to help support this innovative program can be sent to First Congregational United Church of Christ, 100 E. Broadway, Waukesha, WI 53186. Please mark any donations “Attn: Kick-Start Cooking for Kids”.
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Wishing you peace and good eatin’,