Dressed in white aprons, a group of teenagers in East Harlem chopped vegetables, mashed chickpeas, and drizzled olive oil on pita to make a healthy meal.
The high school sophomores and juniors are participants in the Teen Culinary Apprenticeship Pilot, a program created with the generous support of The Pinkerton Foundation to sharpen their cooking and leadership skills.
Whitney Reuling, director of food and nutrition programs for Children’s Aid, runs the program at the Hope Leadership Academy. She aims to empower high school students to not only cook nutritious meals, but to teach their peers how to make healthy choices.
“You’re training them to be leaders, teachers, and ideally advocates for healthy food and cooking in their own communities,” Whitney said.
At the end of this three-month pilot program, each student was placed at a Children’s Aid summer camp site, where they will assist with Go!Chefs cooking classes for 5- and 6-year-old campers for six weeks.
To prepare for their summer jobs, two students also took turns presenting a short lesson to the class before the cooking started. High school sophomores Jayda Holmes and Alexabel Gonzalez taught students about the importance of protein and how to identify healthy, protein-rich foods such as beans, meat, and dairy.
“I heard that we would be working with kids and I love kids, so I don’t mind passing down the learning,” said Shaniya White, a high school sophomore in the program. “[Teaching] can be a little nerve-racking but then after a while you get comfortable.”
After the lesson, the group used their newfound knowledge to prepare simple protein-rich meals – pita chips with hummus and falafel sandwiches with cucumbers and tomatoes. Each student had a task to execute – cutting up vegetables or pita bread, frying falafel, or washing dishes once the meals were prepared.
“I didn’t know that vegetarian food tastes so good,” said Chris Daza, a junior participating in the program.
Shaniya and Chris, who were teaching partners in a previous class, said the program has taught them valuable skills like how to cut produce safely and how to become effective leaders.
“It’s really fun because you get to teach the class and learn different types of recipes that you can teach later on to whoever you live with,” Shaniya said. “A lot of the times healthier foods aren’t as tasty but they’ve taught us that they can be.”
Chris said he was inspired to enroll in the program after he entered the annual Iron Go!Chefs competition and found that he enjoyed cooking. Now, he can more easily identify what food options are considered healthy, he said.
Whitney, who created the curriculum for the program and will provide this opportunity as a year-long apprenticeship next year, said the Teen Culinary Apprenticeship Pilot is beneficial for a variety of reasons. She argues that it helps teenagers hone their culinary skills, create healthy eating habits, and carries benefits both in and beyond the classroom.
“You’re building out life skills – leadership, communication, responsibility—and training them to be leaders in their own communities around healthy eating,” she said. “I really believe that when you have people like this in the classroom, speaking to young kids, it resonates in a way that it wouldn’t if it were an outsider.”