Kids with Knives

Sharpening the next generation’s culinary acumen

By David Szanto

One of today’s so-called maxims is that kids don’t know how to cook any more. While the statement varies in accuracy depending on region, socio-economic status, and family culture, it is fair to say that in recent generations a disconnect has grown between individuals and their food. What’s more, it appears that when young people have no experience growing and making their own food, there are negative impacts on health, sociability, and well-being.

In response, numerous educational programs have emerged—efforts to reconnect kids with raw ingredients and basic culinary techniques. Participants in these programs learn about farming, cooking, and sometimes both, following fresh produce from the soil to the soup pot to the table. Some organizations address individual learning, while others also strive to make change at the institutional level, so that future generations won’t need such programs in the first place.

Here, in Montreal, La Tablée des Chefs brings 12- to 18-year-old kids into direct contact with restaurant chefs who share both their cooking methods and a sense of accomplishment and empowerment. Working through Québec schools, camps, and youth centres, their Brigades Culinaires program involves the social, multicultural, and nutritional aspects of cooking. Today they are active in more than 45 secondary schools.

In contrast, New York City’s Sylvia Center offers both farm education and cooking classes. Kids either travel upstate to Katchkie Farm for garden tours, vegetable harvesting, and collective cooking, or join after-school workshops to learn about making low-cost, nutritious meals with food that is available in their area. As executive director Anna Hammond says, their intent is to unite autonomy with collaboration. Cooking merges the two, and together, they change lives for the better.

Across the Atlantic, the Square Food Foundation serves many of the diverse populations in Bristol, England. People of all ages and backgrounds join in—cooking, mentoring, and teaching—not only helping educate kids, but also reinforcing broader community ties. And now that legislation in England requires primary schools to give cookery classes, Square Food is helping to train the teachers themselves.

For each of these organizations, successes abound. La Tablée’s founder, Jean-François Archambault, happily recalls one case in which a mother chose to switch her child to another school, simply because the Brigades’ cooking program was offered there. Lucy Holburn of Square Food tells of a promising student who stopped coming to their weekly “Into the Kitchen” group: he’d finally landed a job, having gotten a confidence boost from learning to cook. And Anna Hammond remembers a prospective funder who, on seeing a group of South Bronx teenagers cheerfully chatting and chopping vegetables, promptly opened her cheque book.

At the same time, all of these programs face the usual challenge of systemic support. School boards, regional governments, and parents need to buy in otherwise even the best program faces an uphill battle. It’s not just knowledge and skills that need to be developed, but also a community’s collective belief that cooking, conviviality, and connectivity are necessary for a healthful and balanced future.

Spring 2015, Vol 7 N°2

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