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Teaching kids to cook, and teaching them how not to set the kitchen on fire

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Young chefs will learn how to make this Pumpkin Mac and Cheese, along with other healthy dishes at “Pumpkin Palooza,” a kids cooking class run by Lauri Bruno, owner of Kids Nutrition Kitchen in Cranberry, in November.

Some volunteers, such as Sashai Roberts and Tijuanda Riddick, are teachers who work a full school day, and then stay late to cook dinner with some of their students. Others, such as Barbara Brown, Susan Munafo and Jane Pupis, are retired teachers who loved their careers so much that they now volunteer to teach cooking to 10-year-olds.

Some, such as Denette Stetler and Elena Levitan, are avid cooks who want to share their love of food and cooking. Others, such as Mother of Divine Grace principal Jane Lockhart and Wiggins Elementary teacher Edith Bobb, are admittedly neither accomplished cooks nor adventurous eaters. They are learning right along with the kids.

These are just some of the volunteers, 65 across the region, who make up the wonderful community that has collectively dedicated thousands of hours to teaching urban schoolchildren to prepare easy, affordable meals over the last five years as part of My Daughter’s Kitchen healthy cooking program. Most of them are Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com readers, who read about the program and wanted to get involved.

“My favorite moments are when I overhear the students talking to each other about how they love cooking class,” said Levitan, who volunteers at the TeamUp Philly after-school program at the Universal Daroff Charter School. “One student last semester turned to her friend and said ‘This is so much fun — I wish we had cooking class every day.’”

We start our sixth year this week, and for the next eight weeks, we will be cooking dinner and then sitting down to share it with children in 32 schools, mostly in Philadelphia and Camden. The students will be learning to make simple, healthy suppers with fresh ingredients, following recipes created to feed a family of six on a budget of $20 a meal. Along the way, the kids learn how to chop, measure, sauté and roast, and perhaps most important, how to prevent slicing a finger or setting the kitchen on fire.

The program, which was inspired by a request from my own daughter for healthy, easy, cheap meals, also includes some basic nutrition lessons. The goal is to convince these fifth graders how easy it is to cook for themselves and their families, by showing them how delicious healthy dinners can be and how eating right can prevent such diseases as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

According to the surveys completed by students in the program last fall, we have had a good measure of success: 94 percent reported learning new ways to cook.

“I love hearing the kids talk about helping their parents with meal prep,” said Marjorie Cutler, a teacher who has taught the classes at Cramer Elementary in Camden for four years. “They are also more adventurous with foods they haven’t had before.”

Indeed, 78 percent reported that adults trust them more with a knife, and 55 percent reported cooking more for themselves than before they took the class.

When Levitan and her students look back on the last class, the students are “always surprised by, and so proud of, how their skills and confidence have grown in a short time,” she said.

Pupis, and Munafo have volunteered at Loesche Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia for four years, and they treasure that final meal when the kids cook for their families and friends. “The kids feel the success,” Munafo said. “The parents are always so appreciative,” said Pupis.

This semester, we’ll prepare healthy takes on such familiar favorites as breakfast biscuit sandwiches, and homemade chicken noodle soup. But we will also introduce new dishes, flavors and vegetables the kids may not have tasted before, such things as Moroccan stew with squash and quinoa, and shakshuka, a spicy Mediterranean one-pot meal with poached eggs.

“It’s so rewarding to see these kids trying something new,” said Welcome Furber, a volunteer at St. Augustine Academy in Norristown. “My students were so sure they weren’t going to like the eggplant last semester,” she said. “They were so surprised. It was great to hear them say, ‘Wow, this is really good!’”

My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking program was built by these dedicated volunteers, but it could not have grown and flourished without the support and funding of Vetri Community Partnership, the nonprofit started by Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin. The staff there formalized and perfected the structure of the classes I started at St. Martin De Porres in 2013; coordinating the schools and volunteers and nurturing the growth of the program all along the way. Last December, however, the Vetri nonprofit decided to discontinue its support after this semester. I thank them for all they have done. I am currently in discussions with other nonprofits, foundations and funders to make sure this valuable program continues. I welcome your suggestions and ideas.

As of this spring, we have enrolled nearly 2,000 students since the program began. We have prepared more than 1,600 home-cooked meals and logged more than 8,700 volunteer hours. More than $228,000 has been donated to support this program. Our most heartfelt thanks to all those who have donated and who continue to give. Since last October, $31,000 has been donated, including $25,000 from the Rite Aid Foundation KidCents; $1,500 from Mary and Emmanuel Rosenfeld Foundation, $1,000 from the Cameron Foundation; and $1,000 from John and Marianne Egner Charitable Foundation, as well as other generous individual donors.

Mostly important, in the last survey, 90 percent of students reported that they learned making meals that are good for them is easy and fun. I so hope we can keep teaching more kids this simple, vital, empowering life skill.

Off to the kitchens!