Studies show that healthier eating habits can be encouraged among children through nutrition and culinary education as long as it engages them. That is why school gardens where students actively participate in growing food crops results in greater interest in trying things that they helped cultivate and harvest.
That hands-on, interactive approach is behind a new venture called Mobile Teaching Kitchen that is being launched this spring by Chartwells K12, the Compass Group operating company that serves clients among primary and secondary schools.
Mobile Teaching Kitchen is a custom-designed shipping container that has been modified into an 80-square-foot, fully functioning kitchen complete with three-sided ADA-height kitchen countertop and five individual induction plates.
The unit is designed to be taken on the road to visit school sites where a Chartwells chef/dietitian team makes a presentation to a group of students sitting around the demo kitchen area and to others by video linkup. The session combines an educational and interactive approach, with some instruction on ingredients and basic cooking/food prep techniques followed quickly by the students physically doing the steps to prepare the dish.
The session length is flexible, as is the dish being prepared, and the platform allows for customization to meet the needs of different age groups and different communities.
“Right now, we’re targeting upper elementary because we want to talk to kids when they are old enough to understand and get something out of it but young enough so that makes a difference in their behavior,” says Margie Saidel, vice president of nutrition & sustainability for Chartwells K12. “But it’s really appropriate for any age because it provides an opportunity to teach people to cook.”
Current plans call for the mobile kitchen to hit the road in May on a pilot run, make some appearances over the summer, then fully hit its stride in the fall with the start of the new school year.
Recipes for the program have to meet a number of criteria.
“We want the recipes to be not only teaching recipes but things we can feature consistently in our programs,” says Chartwells Regional Executive Chef Josh Perkins, who worked on the program with fellow Regional Executive Chef R.J. Harvey. The recipes are designed to meet federal school meal criteria so they can be featured on lunch menus at the sites Mobile Teaching Kitchen visits.
They also have to involve steps that allow the teaching of useful, if basic, culinary techniques that can be imparted quickly, Perkins adds. “We want kids to spend a short period of time with us and walk away with something really valuable.”
Ingredients emphasize fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins, preferably those grown or readily available from local sources, including school gardens that are also being encouraged by a separate Chartwells program.
Each session begins with a quick introduction of the recipe, the ingredients and the main steps before getting into it in a hands-on way, especially with younger children. “We also want to impart how to buy, choose, store fresh ingredients because it should be a lesson not just on cooking skills but on familiarizing students with ingredients they may not have seen in their fresh form,” Perkins offers.
“The point of the Teaching Kitchen is to get children to understand what good, healthy ingredients look like and how you can really cook a healthy meal in a very short period of time without a lot of ingredients and without it being complicated,” adds Saidel. “Cooking shows are all the rage right now, but sometimes those recipes [they demonstrate] are a little intimidating, so although they’ve been a great thing for our society [by celebrating] chefs [and putting] a lot of attention on cooking, we really need to get where ordinary people know that they can put five ingredients together in a simple, inexpensive way to create a healthy, delicious meal.”
The program has partnered with Pilot Light, a Chicago-based initiative founded by a team of highly skilled chefs with the goal of teaching students about food and cooking. The organization has developed recipes and complementary curricula that can be used in the classroom to supplement what goes on in a teaching kitchen or chef demo session.
Mobile Teaching Kitchen “is a great opportunity to work with those guys,” Perkins says.
The initiative was inspired by the work of the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative, of which Compass Group is a founding corporate member-grantor in 2016. Jointly led by The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the collaborative encourages the use of teaching kitchen facilities to lead positive changes in nutrition-related behaviors through interactive cooking experiences in medical, corporate and community settings.
“At Chartwells, our role is to nourish students as well as empower them with the knowledge and skills for a lifetime of health,” said Chartwells K12 CEO Rhonna Cass in a statement announcing the Mobile Teaching Kitchen initiative. “We were inspired by the work of the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative and are excited to partner with organizations like Pilot Light to bring a first-of-its-kind food education experience to students across the country. The Mobile Teaching Kitchen gives us the ability to impact more schools and more kids as well as teach important life skills in a fun, innovative way.”