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The Schoolyard Foodie: Keepin’ it real in the kitchen with middleschoolers

by GEHRY OATEY

Imagine you are 12 years old.  Your body is starting to do new and fascinating things like grow facial hair, smell, and change its voice.  Your emotions are bouncing off the walls regularly and perhaps there is no other time in your life when what you put into your body is of greater significance.

During your 20 minute lunch break, however, you choose an empty stomach vs. a stomach ache because the vacuum packed food served at your school encourages its own emotional response.  After the 6 or so hours of school, your diet has consisted of a small container of whole milk and an apple that was part of the school lunch.  Today is one of the two days that you take cooking class during the after school program; there is a distinct possibility that you will get to eat!

Today it is Tacos de Asada o Pollo (Chicken or Beef Tacos) served with Pico de gallo, salsa, cilantro, and limon.  Another student’s mom will be visiting the kitchen to show the class how to prepare the Asada. As the cooking and gardening teacher, it is my job to facilitate this beautiful chaos. Thankfully, this all takes place in the after school program, which has a completely different set of norms than the traditional classroom.

Here is a running diary of today’s cooking class:

2:20pm

Students line up at the door while the other classes exit—could easily be the platform of a major train station….

14 students pour into the classroom, bombarding me with their energy and voices:

“What are we going to cook today?”
“Can I cook with Maya?”
“Mr. G.! Mr. G.! Are we making tacos today?”

We go over the plan for cooking.  This plan is little more than a rough outline because when you take 15 middle school kids into the kitchen, every class is like a giant art project—you can’t be sure what you’re going get.  Mix the sheer excitement of doing something that is going to feed the body with whatever emotions have been stirred up during the day and the kitchen takes on a life of its own.  Sadly, it is not unusual to hear that most of my students have eaten very little that day.  Or sometimes they don’t have to tell me; when kids are hungry, their behavior changes. Continue reading

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