This semester I took a service-learning class for humanitarian-inclined foodies, “Our Daily Bread: Food Security, Poverty, and Nutrition.” Apart from reading and writing and doing regular class type things, we volunteered at a soup kitchen, a food bank, an organic farm, and with a program putting on cooking classes for kids from low-income families. The soup kitchen was humbling, the food bank was surprising (-ly huge), the organic farm was fun, and the cooking classes were all three. I only caught the last few classes of the first round, held in the cafeteria of Emma Brooker elementary, forty or so extraordinarily loud and hungry kids clamoring for attention and making banana tortillas. I was overwhelmed. The second round, Audra (another Novo Collegian) and I were assigned a specific weekly class, a (calmer) batch of sixteen or so kids.

The kids always burst into class, backpacks swinging, everyone smiling, asking excitedly what we were learning and making that day. Despite the fact that they’ve been at school all day and then at tutoring for another couple hours, they quietly listen to the initial nutrition lesson, given by a nice nutritionist from a local hospital. The kids follow along in workbook, doing crossword puzzles about vegetables and unscrambling names of different whole grains. Food bingo was always a hit, as were the rubber reproductions of foods in proper serving sizes, everyone fascinated by the wiggly fake oatmeal and carrots.

After nutrition, we launch into the messy part of the class. The recipe for the week correlates with the nutrition lesson and the kids get a grocery bag full of all the ingredients to take home. With a watchful and worried eye, we hand out knives and cutting boards to the kids, watching them cautiously slice peppers for pizza or apples for little crisps. Everyone wants a job, every voice asking for a special task. Most have tried the teacher’s pet tactic, tapping my shoulder with a “Your hair is so pretty… can I roll the dough?” (…and it usually works.) After the dish is assembled and in the oven, clean-up commences, a surprisingly easy process. Kids fought to be the dishwasher, something I really couldn’t figure out. Nonetheless, we cook together, we clean together, then we eat together. There are inevitably the picky eaters who make faces about red peppers, but everyone is always so pleased with our finished creation that they’re willing to give it at least a teeny taste. Pizza was a hit, although everyone meticulously picked around every single vegetable. Apple crisp was well-liked, as were soft pretzels. Kumquat and pomegranate (poma-grams) were a good time, many hilarious faces were made. Salad… unanimously disliked.

I can’t believe it when kids make it to college without being able to make themselves a meal. I hope it’s different for these kids, that they end up capable of throwing together pasta and a salad in their dorms. There’s also low-income aspect, in that these kids in particular have a pretty different view of food than many American elementary students. Filling out first -day surveys, no one was ashamed of the fact that their mothers receive WIC or their family relies on food stamps. Everyone’s mom gets help. 50% of kids in Sarasota County get free or reduced lunch. I wonder what that means, that half of the kids in a place where there are yacht-lined shores and five story houses are hungry.

Beyond its food aid aspect, Project Frontline is a good program that should be extended both in content and reach. Kids from all economic levels should be learning to eat and cook. And if the classes could extend into a sustainable local agriculture curriculum, with school playground gardens and farm field trips… well then. We’d have a bunch of locavore ten year-olds running around. In my dream, at least. But for now, if we can impress a basic understanding of nutrition in these kids, maybe we’ll have a healthier country. And if they can come to love, or even just like, to cook maybe these little ones will grow up to have warm kitchens and full tables and healthy bodies and happy families sitting down to meals together.

P.S. New Florida-New Mexico photos up.