As Scott Davies, Education and Outreach Programs Manager at Pike Place Market, guided a group of 27 children aged nine to 12 around the Seattle landmark where he works, the word “wow” came up a lot. While their small eyes were entranced by the market’s many attractions (buskers playing guitar, the giant squid sculpture, the gum wall), it was the market’s culinary wonders that really interested them.
One such sight was the market’s rooftop garden, where fresh vegetables are grown for a food bank. Children peppered him with questions.
“What’s this?” one boy asks.
“Those are bell peppers,” he says.
“What’s this mint?”
“No, that’s celery!”
They were getting a whole hour to explore and learn about healthy, wholesome, and local food. All of these children live in Seattle (their summer program is in central Beacon Hill), but about a third of them had never been to Pike Place Market before.
Back in spring, School’s Out Washington awarded grants to six summer programs serving low-income children to enable them to include cooking and nutrition in their activities. The goal of the program, called Let’s Get Cookin’, is to improve cooking skills, increase access to healthy, local foods, and decrease health disparities. It was made possible by our partnership with the City of Seattle Human Services Department Youth and Family Empowerment Division, Seattle Tilth, and Pike Place Market.
One of the grantees was the ARC summer camp at Jefferson Community Center, where these students hail from. Joe Renner and Tamera Williams, who work there, said the Market tour comes after 10 weeks of food-related experiences. In addition to typical summer program activities such as swimming, reading, games, and art, the students at Jefferson learned to make a new healthy recipe every week, such as salad tacos and quinoa chocolate cake. They also had one week focused entirely on food. They visited a blueberry farm and used the berries they picked to make jam, which the children took home to their families.
The other five grantees also visited Pike Place Market throughout the summer. The children received $6 worth of market money that allowed them to do their own shopping at the market’s many farmer stalls. Scott said this experience was not just empowering, but also educational.
“The way people shop at the market is how people shop around the world,” he said. “The experience extends beyond Seattle.”
Afterwards, the students gathered at Pike Place Market’s Atrium Kitchen to learn a healthy, easy, and inexpensive recipe. Working together, they learned to prepare a quinoa salad with corn, black beans, roasted red peppers, cilantro, and a garlic and olive oil dressing. (You can make it too! Download it here.)
“There’s this notion that to eat healthy, it has to be some kind of high falootin’ concept,” Scott said. “We eat so many processed foods, you think you have to make a big change, that it has to be hard. This program breaks those myths.”
The experience of cooking together built not just cooking skills, but also life skills such as leadership and team building, Tamera said.
“There’s a leader that develops who helps them work together and keep on task,” Tamera said.
Nutrition and cooking programs are important because many low-income children are not regularly exposed to healthy food options.
Many areas in Seattle King County are considered food deserts, areas where a third or more of people live more than a mile from a supermarket and where 20% or more of people live below the poverty line, a combination of factors that limits families’ access to healthy food. Residents of food deserts often have limited food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.
One place that is almost a food desert is central Beacon Hill, where a significant portion of the population is more than half a mile from a supermarket, according to the USDA, and where Jefferson Community Center is located.
“A lot of the kids had never even had a salad before,” Joe said. “I was like, wow.”
The limitations of food desert living was visible in some of the lunches the children brought with them for the field trip. As the cooking lesson reached a natural lull (everything was ready but the quinoa), some kids pulled out foods prepared from whole ingredients (sandwiches, quesadillas, chow mein), but others open bags and bottles of junk food standards (Cheez-Its, chips, a whole quart of Gatorade).
Even if some meals haven’t changed, the kids have. Joe said, “Their mindset, their ideas of what they should be eating, that has changed.”
The Let’s Get Cookin’ program not only teaches children the importance of healthy eating, but also how to eat healthy. The skills these children (and those at the five other Let’s Get Cookin’ sites) have learned will stick with them through their adolescence and their entire lives.
“I wish I had these skills when I was their age,” Scott said.