A Seat At The Table: Collaborative Cooking Classes w/ Philadelphia’s CHAD Students and PSU Extension Nutrition Links

Every Thursday, for two months, senior Environmental Design students from the Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD) saddled up with bags of groceries and excitedly made their way to Penn State Center Philadelphia’s demonstration kitchen, ready to cook.

A Seat At The Table: Collaborative Cooking Classes with Philadelphia’s Charter High School for Architecture + Design Students and Penn State Extension Nutrition Links

The trip filled my students with a special pride, and I loved to hear them bragging about how we were going to “make our own food.” Many students would enter the professional kitchen, give Penn State Extension Nutrition Links Nutrition Education Adviser, “Miss Deb” hugs and ask, “What is on the menu?”

My name is Miss Joy. I teach a full year environmental design course to seniors at CHAD. For our Farm to Table Nutrition Unit we partnered with Penn State Extension and had weekly nutrition classes with Miss Deb in their demonstration kitchen. In our two months together, we developed a deeply enriching program for our CHAD students and have fostered a relationship that we hope to grow in the coming years. Together, we can pioneer a new model for tackling nutrition and building career skills in schools.

Our Thursday lessons would start by reviewing the day’s meal. Some would be down for it and some would be apprehensive, but, despite any initial fear, when the meal was complete, we never failed to clean our plates. We all came to look forward to trying something new.

After our rundown of the menu, the show would begin. The students would light up and suit up in aprons and gloves. They felt like the celebrities on a cooking show and took super star selfies in the large mirror above the counter. I would catch students sharing, with pride, the pictures of their friends and meals via social media, spreading their new expertise in healthy eating with their friends and family. During the program, students learned enough new recipes for a personal cookbook. They prepared taco bean salad, Sloppy Joes, peach pops, salmon cakes, strawberry summer salad, quick pad Thai, fruit crepes, tofu lasagna, cornflake-breaded baked chicken, twice baked potatoes with broccoli and cheese, , pizzas, smoothies, fried plantains, zucchini bread, and more delicious options that they were excited to show off at home.

Perhaps the most significant portion of class was the valuable conversation we shared over our delicious creations. Everyone had a seat at the table and talked and learned about food, the life force that fuels us all. We created a safe space that opened up enriching conversations about food. Our Thursday meals always had a Thanksgiving-feel to it; nothing brings a community together like good food. We would discuss portion sizes, smart drinking choices, the importance of exercise, food safety, and more. Students also received helpful nutrition resources, such as recipes, and cooking magazines.

At our final graduation class, students received Penn State Extension Nutrition Links certificates of completion… The capstone to the whole experience was a field trip to Reading Terminal Market and scavenger hunt for fresh produce. Beyond expanding students’ horizons (and palates!) to new fruits, vegetables, and meals, our Collaborative Cooking Classes exposed my students to healthier food choices and helped them develop valuable cooking skills.

Nutrition is a vital component of well-being, both physical and emotional. It is essential to bring people together (of all ages) to help contribute solutions to universal and local food-centered problems. These discussions are especially crucial in Philadelphia, where food deserts can span entire neighborhoods, resulting in a whole host of problems such as malnutrition, obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, and more. Once students have the tools and knowledge, they can make healthy eating an everyday habit.

The effects of these classes showed up throughout the week, usually starting as soon as the next day. Students would show me pictures of what their family ate for dinner the night before or tell me they had cooked the recipe we  prepared in class to feed their friends and family. These cooking lessons are spreading crucial knowledge to communities throughout the city.

Located near Independence Hall in the city’s historic area and built on Penn State’s land grant history, Penn State Center-Philadelphia fosters collaboration among communities, practitioners and scholars to generate social and environmental justice solutions to pressing problems surrounding equity, inclusion and quality of life. The Center provides a platform for reciprocal exploration into the rich complexities of urban experiences and encourages participatory approaches via field-based projects and scholarship.