Eleven-year-old Haylee is busy de-stemming and slicing bright red strawberries for lemonade-strawberry slushies. As she carefully cuts with a chef's knife she explains how she helps her mom prepare dinner at home. Her favorite meal is calzones. "I like cutting onions, but they burn my eyes a lot," she says matter-of-factly.
Across the table, Josiah slices lemons in half and juices them to make the lemonade for the slushies. He says his favorite meal is beef broccoli.
Haylee and Josiah were among 14 students to participate in "Kids in the Kitchen," a cooking and food awareness class at Paonia Elementary School. For six weeks kids spend Mondays after school learning skills to make a breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert, and about nutrition and the importance of healthy eating habits.
It's a great life skills class, say PES teachers Alex Kleese and Ginny Mohr, who volunteered to teach the class. It teaches skills students can use every day of their lives, and that can be shared with friends and family.
Kids start by learning basic safety tips, the importance of washing their hands, and how to identify and use basic kitchen tools, including knives, graters and small appliances. Parents are forewarned that there may be a scraped knuckle or cut finger.
The class teaches other useful skills, like how to select recipes and follow recipe directions. They are taught the value of planning, and learning to measure ingredients teaches fractions and puts basic math skills to practical use.
The class also helps kids "broaden the palate." They learn about substituting ingredients. They also gain an appreciation for real food ingredients.
Some students already help out in the kitchen and already have some skills, but for others it's a whole new experience.
"I think they get more confident over time," said Mohr. They also are given recipes to take home. The hope is they'll try them with their families and friends and come back to class and share their experiences.
Classes are held in the Discovery Center which, until the class began last year, didn't see much use as a kitchen in recent years, said Kleese and Mohr. Outside of special education and holiday activities, it was mostly used for storage.
Kids in the Kitchen was the idea of Debbie Lange, a former PES fourth grade teacher. Lange said she loves to cook and bake and would make her students homemade breakfast snacks like banana bread and muffins. She wanted to share that love with her students. Lange also understood that many kids don't get a good breakfast, and that can affect their ability to learn.
In fall of 2014, Lange received a $300 teaching grant from the Arch Coal Foundation for Kids in the Kitchen, but soon discovered the class would cost a lot more. In all, she said, the first year cost more than $1,000. She received an additional $500 grant from West Elk Mine, and restocked the kitchen with supplies with the help of a 30 percent off coupon from Kohl's.
The grant money, however, couldn't be used to purchase food. Lange received another $300 from the Beta Sigma Phi Sorority through Jackie Parks, who is also a past president of the Rotary Club of the North Fork.
Lange also took the kids on a field trip to Rain Crow Farm to learn what foods are grown locally and how they're grown. She was surprised to learn that some students didn't even know that carrots grow in the dirt.
"It was a wonderful experience for me," said Lange, who now lives in Texas.
When Lange announced that she was moving last year, Mohr and Kleese said they wanted to continue the class. They contacted Rotary, which has supported efforts to get fresh, local foods into school meals, said Parks. The club has sponsored numerous school programs, including the Backpack Program, now known as "Helping Hands," which provides bags of food for low-income students to take home for the weekend and holiday meal boxes.
Current Rotary president Marsha Grant is passionate about local foods. "I think any time you can teach kids about food, it's a good thing," said Grant. She decided to make the class her project. Rotary wrote a $1,000 grant to Rotary District 5470 and provided matching funds. The $2,000 allowed Mohr and Kleese to offer two sessions, including a first-third grade session last fall, and a fourth-sixth grade program this winter. They were also able to purchase a lot of fresh, quality ingredients.
Both sessions were full. The kitchen gets so busy that Kleese said she sometimes forgets what she's supposed to be doing.
Kleese and Mohr say the school is very fortunate to have the Discovery Center. The kitchen counter height is kid-friendly for preparing food and washing dishes, cabinets are within reach, and deep blue tiles cover the floor. There's also a large island counter that everyone can gather around.
Now that it has all of the dishes, serving and mixing bowls, a mixer and blender, flatware, glasses, plates and other items needed to run the class, it's getting a lot more use. "The whole school uses the kitchen now," said Kleese.
Before kids begin cooking they learn the value of planning by creating a menu including a breakfast, lunch, dinner (or supper) and dessert. They chose French toast roll-ups for breakfast. "It's a good sleepover breakfast with friends," said Mohr. For lunch it was tacos stuffed with veggies, meat and tomatoes, and for supper, spaghetti with meat and veggie sauce.
All the vegetable scraps go to the school's compost pile for use in the school's garden.
The fall course catered to first-third graders, and fourth-sixth graders took the winter course, which ended last Monday. Younger kids did just about everything the big kids did, said Kleese. They chopped and sliced and ran appliances and used simple recipes to make veggie wraps and fruit faces.
Kleese said she and Mohr were concerned they wouldn't eat some of the foods, like the veggie wraps. "They did," said Kleese. "They scarfed it up."
No one sits down to eat until everything is ready and tables are properly set. The goal is to time work at each of the prep stations so that the entire meal is ready at once. The final meal of the year included spaghetti with meat sauce made with sweet Italian sausage and beef and chopped fresh veggies, cheesy bread with mozzarella cheese grated on top, a colorful salad and fresh-made dressing, and lemonade-strawberry slushies. Everything was ready to serve at once.
After a few bites, everyone agreed that the sauce is the best thing on their plates. They were served spaghetti for lunch that day, but said the meal they made tasted so much better.
The final class included a review of how to use the grater after some knuckles were scraped in making the cheesy bread for the spaghetti dinner. They also made dessert -- ice cream sundaes in milk chocolate bowls. To make the bowls, students blew up balloons and dipped them in the milk chocolate. Once the chocolate cooled, the balloons are burst, leaving just a chocolate bowl.
After dessert, students reviewed the entire course. They shared suggestions for substituting ingredients when cooking at home, and decided that mushrooms are much better in the spaghetti meat sauce, but wouldn't go very well in tacos. They suggested putting fresh fruit in the chocolate bowls and topping ice cream with sprinkles, or making banana splits in them. For the French toast they could roll anything from chocolate syrup to bacon and eggs into the toast.
Next year, said Kleese, they are looking into offering the Coordinated Approach to Child Health, or CATCH program. CATCH is a national program that offers a holistic approach to child health through nutrition and physical education and supervised after-school games. It also teaches valuable life skills. Kleese said that since most of the local foods are available during summer months, they may even offer a summer cooking program.
Before going home, students are given copies of all the recipes. The hope is that they take the recipes home and make the meals with their family and friends, said Kleese. Based on stories kids shared with their teachers and classmates about cooking at home, "I think we've done that."