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Cooking Builds Character for At-Risk Kids

In the September issue of School Nutrition, author Brent T. Frei examined collaborations between school nutrition programs and vocational culinary training programs. Read on to learn about one school district that, though it doesn’t offer culinary arts training or home economics or family and consumer sciences classes to students, provides at-risk kids with the opportunity to learn cooking skills—and develop self-confidence.

Desert Springs Middle School, a part of Palm Springs (Calif.) Unified School District, serves meals to more than 800 students, 97% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals. When Michael Grainger joined the school as assistant principal in 2010, close to his office was a full commercial kitchen that had remained dormant since home ec classes were gradually discontinued years before due to lack of funding years. The kitchen sported four completely equipped food prep areas.

“I had my own catering business a couple of years ago, so I put a proposal together to set up a culinary arts institute,” says Grainger, who believes that the opportunity to learn to cook alongside of peers could become a valuable safety net for students at risk of failing due to poverty, behavior-related issues and other situations. Per Grainger’s vision, the Institute would be offered to 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade students for two hours after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 12 weeks. There would be no additional fees associated with the program, open to any student in those grades enrolled at Desert Springs. Going the extra mile, Grainger took a 40-hour restaurant management certification course in order to be cleared to teach the course. With the help of the school’s counseling team, he targeted 20 students to participate in the Institute’s first trimester.

Today, Desert Springs Middle School Culinary Institute successfully provides a foundation for students to practice culinary skills, work collaboratively and develop effective time management capabilities. But that’s not at all. “It was immediately obvious that their grades were turning around,” Grainger reports. As part of the course, at the end of every class, students had to prepare a nutrient-dense meal to take home to their families. “Students were channeling their focus and creating these incredible dishes. We’re a community entrenched in situational and generational poverty, so food is scarce for some of our kids,” he explains. “The Institute was filling the void, and clearly the parents appreciated it.”

In each trimester, participating students learn to:

  • Demonstrate safe work habits with small tools, small equipment and stationary foodservice equipment
  • Practice personal hygiene and food safety
  • Develop basic knife and measuring skills
  • Implement a variety of food preparation techniques
  • Develop food identification skills
  • Use basic cooking and baking methods
  • Implement dining room procedures and protocol
  • Recognize the major food groups and construct nutrient-dense menus

As the Institute’s sole instructor, Grainger has relied on the gracious volunteer assistance from other school personnel with a passion for cooking.

He believes the innovative culinary arts project must demonstrate an integral dimension of service learning: civic responsibility and providing a worthy benefit to the local community. To that end, last year Institute students began working with community agencies to feed the indigent, as well as to provide nutritious meals to residents of local residential care facilities and a teen outreach center.

Despite the Institute’s positive impact on students, the program receives very little funding. “We’re allocated $4,000 for the year, and I can’t be compensated, so I am not part of that budget,” Grainger explains. “The catering kitchen is fully stocked [with equipment and utensils], so the only thing we need to purchase is the raw ingredients.” His connections with wholesale suppliers allow Grainger “to really milk those dollars to get incredible, nutrient-rich foods.”

Grainger treats his Institute “graduates” to a dinner at a local fine dining restaurant; he pays the bill out of pocket. “When you believe in something, you have to stand behind it 100%,” he says. He also gives each student a certificate. “It’s not a credit-generating course and is simply there to reach students in need. How can we reach these kids and turn around these trends and irresponsible behavior? It’s having that consistent nurturing and assistance from a caring adult and collaboration with peers.”

As the first kids to take his culinary courses two years ago now enter high school this term, Grainger hopes their newfound confidence and soft skill sets will steer them on the right course toward graduation and beyond. To ensure his grassroots movement takes off, Grainger is enlisting area restaurateurs to interact with and share their expertise with his Institute students, and he’s expanding the range of philanthropic activities so more students will engage with their community in positive ways.

“I’m so energized and motivated over what I’ve seen the last couple of years,” Grainger enthuses. “Many of the kids had a natural draw to the culinary arts. It’s amazing what they can do. They’re stepping up to the plate with absolute passion, which galvanizes every aspect of collaboration. Food bridges the gap.”