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COOKING WITH HEART

Students learn to curb unhealthy eating habits.

WRITTEN BY FARAH VITALE
PHOTOS BY CHRIS HOLLOMAN

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The key to decreasing childhood obesity may just be an extra class at school.

In an effort to improve how youths eat and think about food, the American Heart Association created Kids Cook With Heart. The national program has extended into a diverse range of cities, including Los Angeles, San Mateo, San Francisco, Sacramento, Daly City, and now Reno.

The biggest hurdle to sustaining the program is securing funding; the program costs about $10,000 per school. In the 2014-2015 school year, funding was obtained for one Reno school. Bailey Charter Elementary School was sponsored by Whole Foods Market in Reno as part of its 5 Percent Days, in which 5 percent of the store’s net sales for a day is donated to a local nonprofit or educational organization.

Bailey Charter was selected because it is considered an at-risk school, meaning that the majority of students receive lunch assistance money from the federal government as part of the National School Lunch Program, explains Rick Casazza, board chairman of the AHA’s Nevada affiliate.

Preparing home chefs

Casazza, along with Shane Valentine, head chef of the Kids Cook with Heart program; Zachary Warren, health specialist from Reno’s Whole Foods Market; and AHA volunteers worked together to teach the eight-week program of cooking classes at Bailey Charter. Each session lasted about an hour and a half and included lessons in kitchen safety and tips on preparing healthy meals at home.

Many of the youths told Warren that they already cooked meals at home for their families. To broaden their skills, Warren selected healthy recipes that were easy to make and featured ingredients that were not difficult to find.

“Now with our [fast-food generation] of kids, it’s actually nice to see them gain a little bit of know-how and skills to cook at home and take control, using a lot more green foods,” Warren says. “It’s stuff you normally wouldn’t see 8 to 10 year olds doing.”

Changing eating habits

The program focuses on three major behavioral changes to help fight obesity: increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables, decreasing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages; and increasing the amount of meals made at home. The program started with just sixth graders, but it soon extended to include the science club, comprised of students in third through sixth grades.

“I remember something that really got to me during a class,” Casazza says. “We taught the kids how to make blueberry pancakes from scratch. And I remember one girl saying, ‘I’ve never had a blueberry before; wow, this is good!’ Fruits and vegetables were not in a lot of these kids’ diets.”

Two fourth graders involved in the program, Destiny Caldera and Marisa Paguada, both say they now enjoy cooking meals they learned at home. They say that while grocery shopping with their parents, usually at discount stores, they now check nutrition labels on food and are open to healthier options.

In fact, many of the students have retained their knowledge of fruits and vegetables they learned in the program. At the end of the class, when Casazza asked youths how many students had made pancakes for their families, he was shocked to see half of them immediately raise their hands.

Extending the impact

One major goal of the American Heart Association is to clear up a common misperception that cooking healthy food is time consuming and expensive. This starts with educating youths, which is why AHA representatives are working to obtain more grant funding for the Kids Cook With Heart program, so that it can be introduced into more schools in the area.

The overall goal is to get the program into every school, Casazza says, but for now AHA board members aim for four more this next year. That will also mean that more volunteer chefs will be needed, but Casazza doesn’t think that will be a problem since the program doesn’t require a big commitment of time and is a lot of fun.

As a volunteer himself, he says he enjoys being able to teach his favorite recipes to the children, especially those in low-income situations.

“I learned that socioeconomic classifications really affect how people eat and what they can afford,” Casazza says. “But we were trying to show them, for one, that fresh vegetables are not expensive and how they can use them.”

To donate, nominate your school, or for more details on the program, visit http://www.Heart.org/HEARTORG/Affiliate/Kids-Cook-With-Heart-Program-Application_UCM_461732_SubHomePage.jsp

Farah Vitale graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, in May with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her favorite pastime is cooking, and she loves it so much that at one point had thought about becoming a chef. She decided to stick with writing about food instead.

 

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