December 5, 2012

Adopt-a-School: Kids learn to survive, and thrive, in the kitchen

By Gerry Bellett

Their electric frying pans are filled with vegetables and Project Chef’s Barbara Finley is extolling the virtues of patience while cooking to 31 Grade 4-5 kids in Hastings Elementary, who hang on her every word.

“Being patient — that’s the hardest part of cooking,” Finley tells them. “Have you seen the way people fuss when barbecuing?”

But just across the street on the corner of Franklin and Penticton there’s a similar preoccupation with vegetables and patience as a long queue forms outside the Longhouse waiting for the food bank to open.

This is a part of town where it’s not difficult to see hunger.

Every day this East Vancouver school feeds some 70 hungry children through an emergency breakfast program that is supported by the Vancouver-based real estate company Colliers International and The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School campaign.

It’s not unusual for some children to be left to fend for themselves at mealtimes, so could her cooking class be seen as something of a survival course?

“Absolutely,” says Finley, an educator, chef and founder of Project Chef, which has introduced some 6,000 children to the rudiments of cooking since 2006. “In a lot of schools I find children who are responsible for feeding themselves. We’ve got hard-working parents working two shifts and the kids are at home alone.”

Students at Hastings Elementary take part in Project Chef at the school. (Arlen Redekop photo/ PNG)

Finley, in her immaculately starched executive chef’s coat and apron, is teaching the class how to prepare a stir-fry.

“Keep stirring until the broccoli turns a beautiful green and the onions get golden,” she tells them.

It’s Dinner Day, the final day of the weeklong course that has seen the kids cook their way through Dessert Day, Breakfast Day and Lunch Day.

“Every day we add to their knowledge,” says Finley, a former University of B.C. teaching instructor who left the academic world to follow a passion for cooking and become a chef.

Now she’s back in the classroom combining both skills.

“We teach kids about healthy eating and Canada’s food guide. We teach them about food and how to prepare food for themselves and developing a healthier attitude toward food,” Finley says.

“Yesterday we made a minestrone soup with 14 ingredients; on Breakfast day it was multi-grain porridge with an organic apple sauce to go with it. We’ve shown them how to make Friendship fruit salad and guacamole and corn and black bean sauce and whole grain chips.”

Finley chooses ingredients that are accessible and menus to fit a child’s abilities.

“We want to introduce them to as many fruits and vegetables as possible and alternatives to meat. We want to introduce them to the concept of sharing food at the table because an American study showed that 70 per cent of families do not eat dinner together,” she says.

“Studies also show that there’s an astounding amount of learning that goes on around the dinner table and that children from families who eat together are less obese, less likely to smoke or do drugs.”

Anyone tempted to think that the kids would have most liked the sweet things they prepared that week needs to ask 10-year-old Pryor.

“I liked the minestrone best,” says Pryor, who likes to cook at home with his dad. “We cook pizza together but we don’t usually have minestrone.”

His favourite food? Short ribs.

But there’s no meat in sight today, just tofu as a substitute.

Project Chef is one of the most sought after programs by Metro Vancouver schools. Schools submit their application and must wait to see if they are chosen.

Project Chef was at Hastings two years ago and Grade 5 French teacher Alex Simonut applied to have the program back.

“We were lucky enough to be chosen for this week,” Simonut says. “It’s a great program for kids and their parents loved it.

“We got great feedback from them last time. The kids were going home and cooking and getting more involved with preparing their own meals. It’s a really good thing for them to know how to cook at this age.”

It costs a school $1,500 a week to bring in the program, which puts it beyond the reach of some inner city schools unless they are fortunate enough to have a sponsor to pay it.

(The $1,500 covers only part of the cost, the rest is made up from donations to Project Chef from a range of private sponsors.)

Like all non-profits the constant worry is finding funding, Finley says.

“It’s all privately funded, no ministry involvement. This is our biggest year yet and we have a waiting list of a year-and-a-half and we’re getting requests from all across Canada.”

If she has raised enough money she will offer to move into a school for six weeks and teach every class.

This is what is happening in the New Year when Project Chef will take up residence in Vancouver’s Bayview Community School in Kitsilano.

“Teaching a whole school — that’s when the program becomes magical,” Finley says.

Judging by the stories she hears back from parents, the course seems to cast a spell on some children.

Margaret Jorgensen, principal of Strathcona Elementary, says her son took the program four years ago and is now determined to become a chef.

“That’s what he wants to do. Ever since he took the course in Grade 4 he’s been taking cooking courses, all because of Barb,” Jorgensen says.

“This is a kid who loved his Kraft dinners and whose motto was if it’s not white, it’s not right. And now he cooks at home, talks about healthy food choices and notices when I don’t have a vegetable in a meal.”

 gbellett@vancouversun.com

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