It has always been a focus at Fischer & Wieser to give back to the community, and as the world gets smaller and our community of customers grows, we have more opportunities to plug in to worthwhile projects where we feel that we can really “move the needle” to help a program and its beneficiaries. Recently we announced our sponsorship of The Association of Junior Leagues International and the Kids in the Kitchen Program. Through this partnership we have gotten to know people from many different Junior League chapters. The Junior League of Peoria Illinois has a remarkable program that we have the privilege of participating in, and we have asked Andrea Tortora, who directs the program, to tell the story of the kids she works with who are truly heroes in their own homes.
Here is Andrea’s story:
Two groups of children in Peoria, Ill., are learning how to cook healthy meals and so much more, thanks to the Junior League’s Kids in the Kitchen program.
With support from partners like Fischer & Wieser Specialty Foods, these budding chefs are taking a journey with food that is teaching them more than just food preparation for good health. These young chefs are also gaining confidence in their own skills, becoming more adventurous eaters and building relationships with supportive adults.
Each month, Peoria Junior League volunteers work with the children one-on-one to prepare recipes and provide fun and educational information about making healthy food choices, finding the best prices for ingredients and safe kitchen skills.
Almost as importantly, we are having fun together! There is a bit of an inside joke with our Kids in the Kitchen friends, to see which item I will forget for each session. Because every single time I do forget something: the eggs needed to bake muffins or the sour cream for the taco bar. So we’ve learned to use these “problems” as a way to teach the kids how to improvise with a recipe or meal plan.
When the dish is complete, everyone sits and eats together. We ask the children to try each item. If they don’t like it, that’s something learned. But often that one bite leads to a child discovering something new that they want make at home.
When everyone is eating, we talk with the kids about what they like and don’t like about the meal, as well as their ideas for changing the recipe. This builds a sense of community and trust. At the end of each Kids in the Kitchen session, every child receives a take-home bag filled with a recipe card and all the ingredients they need to prepare that day’s meal again at home.
Food can be a wonderful equalizer. Preparing a meal for – and with – others has a special way of bringing all sorts of people together. After all, who can resist love on a plate?
Small Program, Big Impact
Peoria’s Kids in the Kitchen program reaches about 35 children a month right now, but the classes are making a huge impact.
Here’s why these lessons are so important:
Due to the closing of nearby grocery stores, many children we work with are growing up in a food desert, so much of their food comes from food pantries. (“Food deserts” are defined as those neighborhoods where most residents do not live close to a comprehensive provider of healthy and affordable foods to feed their families — more than a mile from a market in an urban area, more than 10 miles in a rural area.)
- Our Richland middle school group serves children living in a neighborhood where 80 percent of families are low-income, 50 percent qualify for food stamps and 50 percent of residents are unemployed or underemployed. These children often cook their own meals or prepare meals for themselves and other family members.
- Our Glendale Commons group works with children from formerly homeless families living in transitional housing. Most are in pre-K through fourth grade and most are new to making snacks and meals on their own. Our partner, the South Side Office of Concern, provides this housing while working with the families to find permanent homes.
The bonds we’ve formed with our Kids in the Kitchen friends are more than just those between teachers and students. Children at both sites have really opened up to our volunteers. Not only do they tell us the foods they want to learn how to make or try for the first time, they are also sharing more about their lives and their hopes for the future.
Here are just a few examples:
- Emily, who once survived on a diet of cereal, cheese and chips, now eats cucumbers, kiwi and salad, thanks to her experiences with Kids in the Kitchen.
- Tamika discovered she really likes dragon fruit after trying it through our “mystery box” activity.
- Cheyenne made us smile when she wore her “After this, we’re having Tacos!” T-shirt the day we browned ground beef and created a taco bar.
- Tyson, who is a super artist, began showing us his comic drawings.
- Liam and Xavier started sharing their love of fossils with us, and one of our members brought them a bunch of fossil samples to explore.
Learning to Serve Others
These kids are taking to heart what we teach them about making smarter food choices. For example, we studied the price comparisons between preparing a chef salad at home and buying one at McDonald’s or Wendy’s.
We are teaching safe ways to prepare foods, including knife skills and proper cooking techniques. We recently made 3 trays of lasagna with our middle school students. Most of the kids like spaghetti, but quite a few were wary of eating lasagna. Since this was part of their summer camp program, our junior chefs prepared a complete meal for 30 campers and staff: cheese lasagna, garden salad, garlic bread and strawberry shortcakes with fresh whipped cream for dessert.
Junior League of Peoria volunteers led the students through the process of making each dish, assembly-line style, so that everyone had a chance to complete each task. Using Fischer & Wieser’s Mom’s Traditional Marinara sauce, we layered the lasagnas first, to give them time to cook. One lasagna featured Alfredo and tomato sauce, because the kids never had Alfredo and wanted to try it.
When it was time to eat, the community center smelled like an Italian restaurant. Our Kids in the Kitchen chefs were excited to see if their friends would like the lunch. We set up a buffet line — and discovered what I forgot! We never sprinkled the shredded Parmesan cheese on top of the lasagnas before baking them. Luckily, one of the kids quickly suggested that we pour the cheese in a bowl and let people add it on their own.
Many of the children were surprised at how much they liked the finished product and leftovers were scarce.
Combating Worries About Hunger
At Glendale Commons, our Kids in the Kitchen group is a bit more transient, so we may only see the same children a few times. These sessions are more about exposing the kids to fruits, vegetables and other healthy snacks. We’ve been amazed at how quickly these little ones catch on. They can now dice vegetables like pros and they love to cook.
One mom shared with us that after her two daughters attended their first Kids in the Kitchen session, she now has 2 regular kitchen helpers.
Despite the hands-on, one-on-one attention, the worry about having enough food is real and strong with many of our Glendale Commons children. Deshawn arrived at a recent session and immediately asked about taking food home to his mom. After we prepared English muffin pizzas that day, he did not want to eat his, instead asking if he could wrap it up to bring it home. We assured him there would be plenty of leftovers for him to take, plus his take-home bag of ingredients, but he was still anxious.
Happily, at our next session, this little guy was more relaxed and truly enjoyed making his “wafflewich” using Fischer & Wieser cinnamon pear preserves.
This Fischer & Wieser-inspired recipe was the perfect fit for our younger Kid in the Kitchen friends. The children sliced strawberries, bananas and apples. Then they spread toasted whole grain frozen waffles with pear or peach preserves and sunbutter.
The kids joked that they’d rather have syrup and butter, but many of them ate 2 wafflewiches during our 1-hour session and were eager to make it again at home.
The Junior League of Peoria is now working on plans to grow the Kids in the Kitchen program. Once soil testing is complete, we’ll start a community garden at Glendale Commons. Future plans for the program also include interactive cooking classes online with chefs and team members from Fischer & Wieser!
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