Hodge Podge Porridge. She knew it was healthy, she thought it was delicious, but how would the kids react?
Barb Finley realized she was taking a risk with this hodgepodge of grains – steel cut oats, quinoa, millet and amaranth. She watched the Grade 4 students measuring out their dry goods. As ever, they were having fun. But, would the young chefs actually eat this ‘Breakfast of Champions?’
The burbling porridge smelled divine. The kids kept busy, mincing apples for a Chunky Applesauce side.
Then: the moment of tasting truth. The Hodge Podge was ready! These Grade 4 students sat down, grabbed their spoons and went at the porridge with pride and enthusiasm. “They loved it!” says Barb Finley.
Experiences like these are priceless, says Finley, the Founder of Project Chef. Project Chef is an experiential, food education program for students in kindergarten to Grade 7. Their main offering runs for one week, is linked to the BC curriculum and has served 11,700 children over the past 9 years.
“It’s a food literacy program,” explains Finley. “We teach children where food comes from, what real food tastes like, how to create it and how to share it around the table.”
Finley was inspired to create the program when she was working locally as an elementary school teacher. “I saw what children brought to school for lunch. Sometimes fruit roll-ups and a Coke. I thought we could do better. We need to fuel children to learn. Children and adults needed to be educated about the importance of good food.”
Finley’s mother had always stressed the importance of healthy meals, eaten together. “My Mother brought people together around the table. She stressed the importance of nutritional food, but also the social, cultural and emotional importance of family meals. It is something that was more valued in her generation. Our lives are so busy now. It is difficult for families to get together to eat.”
Finley was also inspired by successful programs like the Edible Schoolyard Project, started by famed chef and food thought leader, Alice Waters, in Berkeley. “I was looking for something I always wanted as a teacher: hands-on learning.”
Like her Mother, Finley loves to cook, so – with a healthy food program in mind – she left her teaching position and enrolled in Dubrulle Culinary School’s one year program. Finley got restaurant experience before piloting Project Chef – “Chef is an acronym for Cook Healthy Edible Food” – in 2007.
Project Chef has been enormously popular. Students get five lessons over the course of the week – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and dessert. It is a multi-cultural menu that is compliant with the Canadian Food Guide. Any one day you might find groups of children concocting recipes like:
• Whole Grain Pancakes with BC Blueberry Sauce
• Whole Wheat Bannock, Tzatziki & White Bean-Rosemary Dip
• Veggie Ratatouille with Whole Wheat Couscous
• Vegetable Curry with Brown Rice
• Speedy Whole Wheat Pizza
• Friendship Fruit Salad
• Apple-Berry Crumble
“We are in Vancouver elementary schools thirty two weeks of the year. We have so many schools applying, that we have to use a lottery to determine the schedule. We had a two-year waiting list. We worked through that, so now we are opening up the application process again.”
Project Chef is a non-profit that relies on private funding, so there is much pavement-pounding from Finley. Most of her grants are annual. “We know the need, there is huge demand. We have had requests from over fifty other school districts and community groups who would love the program. We’re beyond our capacity, but funding is a challenge.”
Finley works with a “small but mighty” staff and dedicated community volunteers and parents. Classroom teachers learn more about integrating Project Chef into the curriculum at specially designed Professional Development Days. “We work with the teachers. We’re not replacing them.”
The Project Chef team arrives at the elementary schools with eighteen plastic bins filled with equipment and ingredients. “We set up seven kitchen stations in the classrooms.” They have portable ring elements, induction burners and electric frying pans.
‘Open mind, open mouth’ is a commitment that everyone makes on the Monday. And, sure enough, kids who come in claiming to hate fruits and vegetables – “never eat them!” – are soon digging into their healthy creations.
Why the sudden openness to new foods? “Because they made it,” says Finley. “Studies confirm that children are more likely to try something if they made it. They cut it, they cooked it, they washed the dishes, they will try it.”
“Their peers are there. The parents are there. The community. There is all of this buzz around sharing good food.” As they prepare their meals, kids who struggle academically can find a new way to shine in the classroom.
In learning to create these nutritious meals, Project Chef participants are also learning how to use kitchen tools. “They move from never having held a knife, to being capable and confident.” Parents are learning new recipes and watching their kids grow. “And teachers are learning more about students and their families. They get to know them at a different level, because of the experience of cooking and sharing food.”
Project Chef has expanded to spring break programs, summer camps and an in-residence intensive. “We stay at the school for the length of time that it takes to teach everyone. The last one was at McBride for nine weeks.”
Finley and her team have run summer camps for children with special needs. They also have an Intergenerational program that brings together Queen Mary school students and seniors from Tapestry Retirement Community. “It’s very heartwarming. Sometimes, residents will come to watch. One fellow would come in his wheelchair. We were making Apple Berry Crumble, but he didn’t want to come and join us. He said: ‘I just like the smell. It reminds me of the Apple Cake my wife used to make.”
All in all, says Finley, “this is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.” She runs into past Project Chef participants, who tell her that they continue to make Hodge Podge Porridge and other program recipes at home. ”Our first group graduated this past year. If they go off to university and make a veggie stir fry instead of Kraft Dinner, that is success.”
Here is Project Chef in action:
Take a look at their instagram page. It might inspire you to new kitchen wizardry.
Written by Elizabeth Newton