CINCINNATI — It was the last day of a special cooking class at St. Francis DeSales School in East Walnut Hills, and 10-year-old Jacqueline Lawson was ready to build her perfect pizza.
She peeled apart a wheat flatbread round and spread sauce between the layers and on top. She added two layers of shredded cheese and sliced turkey pepperoni. And there was still space for mushrooms — one of Jacqueline's favorites.
"I love it," Jacqueline said of the class. "I love food."
She even loved the new, healthy food she tried.
"I had a lettuce wrap with turkey, and we made a fruit salad," she said. "I've never had fruit in my salad."
Such is the power of Culinary Camp, a new idea tested in Cincinnati this summer to try to improve summer feeding programs that are straining to reach kids who qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch during the school year.
Culinary Camp is the creation of Design Impact, a downtown-based firm that works with nonprofit organizations to address community problems. For this program, the firm has been working with Freestore Foodbank, which distributes 20 million meals each year in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Freestore Foodbank got grant money from two national organizations — Feeding America and ConAgra Foods Foundation — and asked Design Impact to come up with innovative ways to reach more children than the region's summer feeding programs currently do.
"We know that only 9 percent of kids eligible for free and reduced-price lunch actually access it during the summer," said Michelle Stawicki, a social innovation specialist with Design Impact.
And that means thousands of kids in Freestore Foodbank's 20-county region are going hungry.
The goal of Culinary Camp is to give kids another reason to want to go to a summer feeding program and make it feel fun. UpSpring Executive Director Mike Moroski liked the idea so much that he invited Design Impact to bring the classes to Summer 360° at St. Francis De Sales School, UpSpring's summer camp for kids experiencing homelessness. Summer 360° already provides the kids free breakfast and lunch as a summer feeding site.
"It's real difficult to get kids to come to a program," Moroski said. "The Culinary Camp idea is awesome."
That's where Jacqueline, a Summer 360° camper from Newport, was making her double-decker pizza.
Healthy Snacks Vs. Honey Buns
Culinary Camp lasted for five weeks at Summer 360° in East Walnut Hills and introduced a different recipe each week. About 50 students — divided into two groups — took part each week.
Stawicki and Caitlin Behle, another social innovation specialist at Design Impact, worked with local experts to create recipes that were healthy and that could be made using ingredients that are readily available from food pantries. That is, after all, where many of these kids' parents get a lot of their food.
"We want to make sure the food is something they can create from home," Behle said. "The recipes recognize that a lot of the kids may have limited resources, such as no heat source, for example."
For recipes that needed heat — such as the pizzas — the class used electric skillets. But most were made of ingredients the kids just had to mix or assemble and then eat.
On pizza day, Lisa Andrews served as Culinary Camp's head chef. A registered dietician whose company is called Sound Bites Nutrition, Andrews is one of the volunteers who helped Stawicki and Behle plan the class menus. Ray Ball, of A Few Hungry Girls, is another.
In addition to the wheat crust, tomato sauce, shredded cheese, mushrooms and sliced turkey pepperoni, each table of students at the UpSpring camp also had bowls of diced peppers and cups of oregano they could add to their pizzas.
Andrews started the class by explaining the nutrients in each of the ingredients and why people need them to be healthy.
"Hair, skin, fingernails are all made out of protein," she said. "Which is in cheese."
She encouraged the students to try a new ingredient they had never eaten before.
UpSpring counselors stayed with their campers and encouraged them. And two teen assistants — Me'Kyla Menefield and Jermaine Jackson — helped each week, too. Me'Kyla and Jermaine are both 16, and both will be juniors at Western Hills University High School in the fall.
"I think it's good," Jermaine said of the program. "Kids who come here want to eat healthier and not just eat Honey Buns and snacks all the time."
Not only did Me'Kyla and Jermaine help prepare the ingredients before each class, they also had great rapport with the younger kids, Behle said. At times, they were able to convince younger kids to try something new just by eating it themselves, she said.
"You know how kids are when they see you do it," Me'Kyla said.
"I had to eat like two bowls of fruit salad just to convince them that it's good," Jermaine added.
'I Want To Feed All The Kids'
After finishing the five weekly Culinary Camp classes with UpSpring, Stawicki and Behle took the program to Millvale Recreation Center.
The center serves some of the city's poorest children. The summer feeding program there is what is known as an "open program," where any child can stop by for a meal during the hours that food is served.
The UpSpring location gave Stawicki and Behle the chance to test out recipes and see what kids learned. At Millvale, they wanted to find out if Culinary Camp could attract more kids to the summer feeding program if they knew there was going to be something fun to do and healthy snacks to make after lunch.
Me'Kyla and Jermaine were there to help, too.
The Millvale Culinary Camp was a lot less predictable than the one at UpSpring. Stawicki, Behle and their helpers set up tables in a hallway past the gym. They started out with four tables on the first day. By the third and final day of Culinary Camp at Millvale, they needed six tables.
Of the 28 kids who attended Culinary Camp the third day, six of them had been there the first day and returned. And 15 kids had been there the second day and came back. Three children attended all three days.
"At both places, kids were truly excited about taking ownership about what they're eating," Stawicki said after the final Millvale class. "Once they feel like it's their own, they're happy to try it."
If Culinary Camp gets good results, the goal is to expand it next summer, said Freestore Foodbank CEO Kurt Reiber.
"I want to feed all the kids, first and foremost," Reiber said. "You can't study a problem and then just say we're going to study it, we're not going to be doing anything."
Design Impact and Freestore Foodbank worked earlier this year with No Kid Hungry, a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit, to talk with local teenagers about why so few teens wanted to take part in summer feeding programs.
While Culinary Camp was a separate effort related to meeting the needs of hungry kids during the summer, the teens' insights were helpful, Stawicki said. The teens made it clear, for example, that they didn't like the idea of taking handouts and that they wanted something to do in addition to just going somewhere to eat. They also talked about how they wanted to learn to cook. And all those things were part of the discussion when the idea for Culinary Camp was born.
Now that Culinary Camp is finished, Stawicki and Behle will look through all the surveys they asked kids to complete and figure out which recipes worked and which didn't. Even more importantly, they will work to determine whether Culinary Camp has the potential to be an ongoing strategy in the fight to reduce childhood hunger, especially in the summer.
As Me'Kyla put it: "A lot of kids don't have the food supply in the summer. This helps them. And I want to help kids when I get older."
That's exactly what the staff at Design Impact and Freestore Foodbank want to do — as quickly as possible.
Freestore Foodbank is in the midst of its massive Rubber Duck Regatta fundraiser. To find out more about how you can "buy a duck and feed a child," click here.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, to go www.wcpo.com/poverty.