Training students in the kitchen to build life-long skills

Food insecurity surfaces as a common theme when looking at community needs across New Brunswick, and the rural community of Blackville is no different.

The Miramichi Area Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) identified food insecurity as a priority. Blackville, while located approximately 50 kilometres southwest of the city of Miramichi, is included in the Miramichi Area CHNA.

Jessica Bowie and Melanie Cormier are both Horizon Public Health dietitians who are part of the Roots to Table network which supports the Chefs! programs in schools.

“The program helps improve the health and well-being of students in the Blackville area, teaching them skills in the kitchen that will be of benefit to them for life,” Jessica said.

“Children and youth learn about healthy eating and physical activity while they learn the fun of cooking,” Melanie said.

“The support from the local food security network also includes training volunteers and supplying them with cooking utensils,” said Jessica.

For either six or 12 weeks, Grade 5 students meet weekly to learn basic cooking skills.

They learn how and when to wash their hands, proper knife handling and other safety techniques, food safety, healthy eating tips, using fresh ingredients and more. They also learn about the importance of being active.

“All of these skills help them grow into independent adults, non-reliant on pre-packaged and fast food,” said Melanie. “The idea is to bring back the basics of cooking skills to increase food literacy and encourage students to adopt a healthy lifestyle.”

Brenda Stewart is vice president of the Blackville Home and School Association, who coordinates and facilitates the sessions.

“The kids love it so much, they look forward to it every week,” she said.

The sessions begin with kitchen and food safety, and then they get into using the stove.

“Frying food in a pan, then boiling things like potatoes and carrots,” Brenda said. “Then we get into cooking food in the oven.”

Brenda said the students enjoy the hands-on experience, which is a great way to learn.

“It’s interactive, they’re up, they’re cooking and they’re learning,” Brenda said.

And no matter how bad or good their dish turns out, they made it themselves.

 “I’ll stand back and make them mix up the hamburger with the egg and they gag, and they’re grossed out – but at the end, they always say ‘I made it, I have to try it’.”

Brenda’s favourite class? One session, she’ll bring in a variety food and students have to try them.

“I buy a whole bunch of different foods like soy milk, lactose-free milk, avocados, hummus, grapefruit, goat cheese and different things like that,” she said. “And the kids have to try them, they have to experiment with different foods.”

Similar programs are run at schools in Baie-Sainte-Anne, Neguac, Rogersville, Red Bank and other schools in the Miramichi region.

“The kids get right into cooking, and it’s so great to see!” Brenda said. “It’s a fun little class. They all just love it.”