It's Tuesday night in the Cooking Light Test Kitchen, and 9-year-old Maurice stands atop a step stool, gently shaving carrots on a cutting board. Nearby, his father, Tony, is chopping tilapia fillets into bite-sized nuggets. Maurice, Tony, and several other families are taking part in a cooking skills program created by Jones Valley Teaching Farm (JVTF), an urban farm in Birmingham, Alabama, Cooking Light's hometown. For the past seven years, JVTF has been turning vacant downtown lots into thriving farmland and empowering the city's young students to change their lives in the process.
Like many areas of the country, Birmingham is faced with a distinct food duality. Portions of downtown are virtual food deserts, while wealthy suburban neighborhoods are spoiled with farmers' markets, grocery stores, and restaurants.
Organizations like JVTF have stepped up to help fill in the gaps. A few years ago, the farm launched Good School Food, a program that teaches school-aged children like Maurice how to grow and sell produce. In the process, the students gain math, science, and problem-solving skills. JVTF also empowers students and their families to cook together with the Family Kitchen program, which is where Cooking Light and sister title Southern Living come in. Ann Taylor Pittman, Cooking Light's Executive Food Editor, and other staffers serve as cooking teachers.
"Every person in the family gets their hands on the food, doing some part of the recipe," Pittman says. "Even the littlest kids can muddle oranges for a homemade soda or tear lettuce."
Emily Cole, Family Kitchen's program coordinator, says empowerment comes from hands-on learning. "To get the students in the kitchen trying new things and helping parents feel more comfortable, that's important," Cole says. "We want to provide that opportunity because we know that increasing consumption of healthy foods and fresh produce and then making time to eat dinner together as a family is vital."
"Those of us who preach the benefits of a healthy lifestyle can walk the walk and we can talk the talk, but we should and could do so much more," Pittman says. "The best thing you can do to promote healthy eating is to cook for yourself, but even with the abundance of cooking shows on television, some people really need someone to step back and teach them the basics, like how to hold a vegetable peeler—and without judgment."
Tony likes the results he sees with his son. "I cooked at home [before Family Kitchen], but Maurice was extremely picky. I had to make his lunch every day," he says. "Now he'll eat his hamburgers with broccoli. He'll eat fish. I haven't had to pack a lunch so far this school year."
Preparing and serving delicious, wholesome food with the people you love is a gift. Pass it on.
GIVE FROM THE HEART Interested in digging in to do more? Here are three more organizations that could use your dollars or your time.
>> KIDSGARDENING.ORG Like JVTF, the Vermont-based KidsGardening helps schools and community organizations plant gardens. In turn, students learn vital lessons in cooking, nutrition, and environmental stewardship.
>> FOODCORPS.ORG FoodCorps sends young Americans into classrooms to teach nutrition, healthy cooking, and gardening to students. Service members help build lasting relationships among school staff, local farmers, and community members who all have the same goal: Help foster an enduring relationship with healthy food in all children.
>> OXFAMAMERICA.ORG OxFam America's reach is wide in its global scope, but your donation helps create change in tangible ways. For example, $18 buys a hen and a rooster that produce both eggs and chicks for a family; $50, a pig. A donation of $320 funds a community garden. Downstream benefits: Families can give animals and produce to other families, stretching your dollar even more.