Dedicated kitchen classrooms for NYC public school kids

Dedicated Kitchen Classrooms For NYC Public School Kids

Wed 10 Aug 2011

Story by Claudia Bellini

The Cooking Room is the first of its kind: an elementary school program that teaches public school kids in New York City how to work with real, healthy, non-processed ingredients to prepare tasty food.

We are currently piloting at Public School 3 in the West Village in Manhattan, where we have an in-school, hands-on, dedicated kitchen classroom, a supportive administration and an abundance of volunteers.

The idea came about when an old science classroom in PS3 was vacated and left unused. Chef Zak Pelaccio (of New York restaurants Fatty Crab and Fatty ‘Cue) knew immediately this was a great opportunity. We had a gas line, three sinks, a refrigerator and an ice machine! And so the idea of The Cooking Room was born. A classroom in a NYC public school dedicated solely to teaching elementary school kids how work with fresh ingredients to prepare healthy alternatives to processed junk food. We had never heard of anything like it.

Within days we had a fantastic team to help get this project off the ground. One of our team members was sent over by Dorothy Hamilton, director of the International Culinary Center/French Culinary Institute. She was immediately on board when Zak told her about our vision to create a practical, hands-on food education/cooking curriculum for Kindergarten through 5th grade.

Over the past school year, we learned what works, and what doesn't. We had 22 teachers signed up for ongoing cooking sessions and each week, Zak came in and taught classes. Initially, they were arranged by taste: sour, salty, sweet, and bitter. Then he moved on to the building blocks of cooking, which involved combining these different tastes. He had 6- and 7-year-olds cure anchovies, taste bacon at four different stages, make tamarind soda, temper chocolate, make chicken soup from scratch and crack cocoa pods. The kids tried everything. And they loved it.

In order to be supported even more by teachers and school administrators we soon realized we needed to create a standardized program that will dovetail with the State Standards set forth by the Department of Education. So this summer, with the resources and experience of the ICC/FCI, we are developing a food–based curriculum for The Cooking Room. Every lesson will incorporate grade-appropriate skills in reading comprehension, math, problem-solving and science while introducing the kids to a whole new world of flavors and techniques. Our goal is to organically integrate food education into the curriculum standards of the school, and, one day, serve as a model for other schools.

So far, we have received lots of positive interest and excitement for The Cooking Room from teachers, parents, and kids. And as word gets out, more and more individuals and organizations outside the school want to get involved - chefs, greenmarkets, farmers, food writers, nutritionists and restaurateurs.

It is quite exciting to see everything come together: this year our pilot school also introduced WITS (Wellness in the Schools) to create better school lunches and a garden project down at The Battery from which The Cooking Room gets all types of produce. For a grassroots group of volunteers we've taken great leaps forward in terms of food education and food quality.

The next steps require additional money so we can further outfit the classroom, formalize the curriculum and hire some part-time chef-instructors. We set up our 501(c)(3) non-profit organization so we are now ready to raise funds. With the help of so many people who are just as passionate as us about teaching kids to cook and eat food that is actually good for them, we are confident the 2011-2012 school year will be off to a fantastic start.

About the author: Claudia Bellini is the Chair for The Cooking Room in New York City

Read more about Wellness in the Schools.

Images: (from left to right, top to bottom) Theadora Jones, Chef Zak Pelaccio, Phil Gutensohn, class looking at the raw chicken.


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