Originally published in Ottawa Magazine, Summer 2014
Standing on the lawn behind the Britannia location of the Boys & Girls Club, I notice an ugly chain link fence is all that stands between a city dump, strewn with broken furniture and car tires, and a lovingly created organic vegetable garden. In the shadow of an apartment building, children tend to towering stalks of Swiss chard. They pull weeds between raspberry bushes and sweep bugs off fresh mint and stalks of asparagus. Inside the Club’s kitchen, more kids help transform the day’s bounty into afternoon snacks. They make couscous salad, colourful wraps and kale chips to share among as many as 100 kids—most from underprivileged homes—who drop-in here to get help with homework, shoot baskets and develop leadership skills.
As I gazed upon the garden in the spring, the critical question crystalized for me: How can we ensure the next generation chooses real food when garbage is all around them? For me the fence is a metaphor for the line that exists between real food and the junk that more often fills our bellies. Research recently released by the Sobeys Inc. chain of supermarkets found that only 18% of Canadians are preparing at least one meal a day from scratch or with basic ingredients. Instead, the study suggests, we’re relying on processed and prepared foods. We’re filling up on what author Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like products”, the stuff with ingredient lists our grandmothers wouldn’t recognize. The so-called convenience food that are strongly linked to diet-related diseases, not to mention obesity and hunger epidemics.
The simplest solution to these problems starts with cooking more real food for ourselves. But let’s face it: We have an adult population that rarely cooks. If children aren’t seeing parents preparing food from scratch, what chance is there that the amount of fresh food consumed will do anything but plummet in the future? It’s a disturbing thought, yet most of us would say we’re too tired or too busy to contemplate it. The good news is, a new approach to the problem emerging. Since we cannot rely on adults, the thinking goes, we must find ways to empower children to eat better than their parents.
Everywhere I look, I see momentum building for kids to get their hands dirty in the kitchen. From Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Day to the creation of children’s food festivals, we’re seeing a groundswell of cooking classes, cookbooks and cooking shows for kids. After writing two political books about food and sustainability for adults, Toronto-based author Sarah Elton, recently published Starting From Scratch aimed at wanna-be cooks aged 10 and up. She hopes to inspire kids to eat conscientiously, try new flavours and understand what’s on their plates.
In Ottawa, where I suspect the level of most kids’ culinary skills is limited to putting pepperoni smiley faces on pizzas and decorating cupcakes, kids are picking up cooking skills in unexpected places. The very grown-up Urban Element culinary arts studio offers March break and summer cooking camps for kids; Jennifer Heagle co-owner of local food shop Red Apron goes into elementary and high school classrooms to teach basic cooking skills to students. Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School in Barrhaven has a hands-on culinary arts program led by Chef Kent Van Dyk who prepares kids to feed themselves once they are living on their own. The Table Community Food Centre, Perth’s innovative answer to a food bank, offers free cooking workshops including one aimed at getting dads and kids in the kitchen. The Children’s Aid Foundation recently launched its Cooking Toward Independence Project, a new initiative designed to improve the lives of young people leaving the child welfare system across Canada by funding cooking skills workshops.
“Cooking should be something we do every day, like brushing our teeth,” says Sally Sampson, founder and president of Chop Chop, a Massachusetts-based non-profit cooking magazine and cookbook for families, “People are beginning to realize it’s an essential skill. You’ll eat better if you’re cooking from scratch.” Sampson’s magazine aims to get kids hooked on cooking, even if it means their doctors need to prescribe it by sending them home with copies of Chop Chop. Sampson says the key is starting with small steps. She’ll set up a stall at a farmer’s market and teach kids to make their own salad dressing. “We hear the kids begging their parents to buy vegetables so they can use it.”
It’s the same thing I witnessed when visiting the weekly Cooking Club the Boys and Girls Club last spring. I watched as long-time volunteer Kate Twiss patiently laid out salad spinners, bowls, and vegetable peelers for her small army of eager young cooks. The scent of fresh lemons and herbs cut through the smell of sweaty sneakers and beckoned members to the large cutout kitchen window through which afternoon snack was being prepared. That day Vietnamese springrolls were on the menu. One of the smallest participants was a shy 6 year-old girl who spent a half-hour at the kitchen counter on her tippy-toes softening rice paper in warm water, and filling it with shredded lettuce, cucumber, carrot and a drizzle of hoisin sauce mixed with lemon all wrapped up into a pretty packet. When her mother arrived, she took one of her creations for the road. A few minutes later they returned to the kitchen. The mother asked Twiss for the recipe. She said she had never seen her daughter enjoy vegetables with such enthusiasm.
After the last of the springrolls were served, Twiss walked me out to the garden. She recalled bringing her daughter to the Club for swimming lessons more than a decade ago when hot dogs were given out as snacks. She told me the garden project is beginning to thrive thanks to restaurateur Steve Beckta who sits on the Club’s Board of Directors. Last summer Beckta recruited his staff as volunteers to help build the beds and plant the garden. He donated the $1000 prize money he had received for a hospitality award last year and another $4000 raised at his restaurant’s tenth anniversary celebration. He consulted with on of his restaurant’s treasured suppliers, Matt Vandenberg, of Rideau Pine Farms for advice on building a thriving organic garden in the city.“It’s so important for kids to learn where healthy food comes from,” Beckta says.
We are happy to keep kids busy with hockey, piano lessons and gymnastics, and then reach for packaged granola bars or head to the drive-thru when the game or meet is over. I believe we are missing an opportunity to feed them another set of skills required to build confidence, independence and the kind of resilience they will need to resist the falling into the same traps as their parents. Initiatives like the ones at the Boys and Girls club hit home the idea that the ability to cook is an essential life skill. Putting kids in the position to prove it to the adults how good it feels to cook may not just be the best way forward for a healthy future – it might be the only way.