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Partnership gives CALS students opportunity to teach Cooking Matters classes

Carla Leathers is famous for her banana pudding. It’s loaded with the good stuff – sweetened condensed milk, whipped cream, vanilla wafers. The Raleigh mom brings it to every family gathering, and it disappears quickly.

So when her daughter Cayla Bridges, 12, came home from a Cooking Matters class talking about a healthier way to make banana pudding, Leathers was skeptical.

“When she showed me the recipe, I thought there is no way this can be good,” Leathers said. “It had unsweetened applesauce and yogurt. But I agreed to try it since she wanted to make it for me. Surprisingly, I really liked it.”

This moment was one of many that spurred Leathers to write a letter to Natalie Cooke, a postdoctoral teaching scholar in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences. Cooke is program director of A PACKed Kitchen, a service-learning program that helps deliver the Cooking Matters classes.

Here’s how it works: The Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is the lead partner in North Carolina for Cooking Matters, Share Our Strength’s nutrition education program. Cooke and Suzie Goodell, associate professor of nutrition science, partnered with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Share Our Strength in 2009. Since then, NC State students have been teaching Cooking Matters classes in the community as part of their involvement in A PACKed Kitchen.

A PACKed Kitchen helps the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle teach Cooking Matters classes by training their A PACKed Kitchen volunteers and coordinating and financing their Cooking Matters classes, which are offered for free each fall at a variety of community partner sites throughout Raleigh.

To date, the program at NC State has involved more than 100 student volunteers and reached nearly 300 community participants.

Bridges was one of 12 middle school students from three different Boys and Girls Clubs who participated in a Cooking Matters for Teens class at the Urban Ministries’ Open Door Clinic last fall. Her class was designed to give young people hands-on experience cooking nutritious meals and learning how to make healthy choices.

Bridges excelled in her class, earning the “most likely to become a chef” award at the end of the semester.

“I was really excited that Cayla wanted to take the class,” Leathers said. “Every week she would try a new recipe, and she would read labels everywhere we went, scrutinizing everything. I am a diabetic, so it’s good for me to learn different ways to eat healthier.”

Bridges and the other participants made two recipes each week then took home groceries to make the meals at home.

“One of the unique things about the Cooking Matters for Teens curriculum is the extreme food makeover,” Cooke said. “Participants pick their favorite recipe, and they decide over the course of six weeks, based on what they’re learning, how to adapt that recipe to make it healthier.”

During the last week of the class, Cooke said, the teens compete against each other in teams to prepare their recipes, which are then judged by a panel of experts.

“We made tacos,” Bridges said. “They were good. We used ground turkey, whole-wheat tortillas, lettuce and cheese. My favorite part of the class was trying new things. I had lots of stuff that I’d never tried, like avocado and horned melon.”

NC State students work in groups of five to teach each the Cooking Matters class. There are two chefs, a nutritionist, a class manager and a food runner.

The students who taught Bridges’ class in fall 2014 were senior nutrition majors Thomas Adams, Kristen Bochicchio and Sarah Wilson; Susane Sommer Damasceno, a master’s student in nutrition; and Emily Riddle, a junior nutrition major. Kerry Jones, a senior human biology major (with a minor in nutrition) supported the team as community liaison.

“The beauty of the Cooking Matters curriculum is that it allows for engaging the participants in learning through encouraging them to tell stories and share experiences,” Cooke said. “Our students are learning how to be nutrition educators, and they’re also learning how to involve their participants in a real way.”

As part of the service-learning program, students attend Goodell’s lectures and then go to Cooke’s lab for application of what they’ve learned in the classroom.

“They’re learning knife skills, for example, before they teach them to kids and teens,” Cooke said. “They do a lot of practicing before they get into the real-world instruction setting.”

– Suzanne Stanard