AWESOME PROJECT: Kids Who Cook, with the Peterson Garden Project

There’s been some media coverage lately of a phenomenon whereby kids who learn to cook, and are involved in the family’s meal-preparation, can have an easier time overcoming picky eating habits (which have been linked to anxiety, ADHD, and depression), get a boost in overall confidence, and be generally much more inclined towards good health.

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It makes sense. A kid who washes the lettuce, breaks up the feta cheese, slices the olives and red onion, mixes the oil and vinegar, and adds it all to the Greek salad with his very own hands is going to be that much more engaged with his dinner. He’s also probably going to be that much more receptive to learning along the way about which foods contain calcium, say, and why we need calcium to keep our bones healthy. Ditto vitamin A, and so on.

The folks over at the Peterson Garden Project, a community garden and cooking facility in Chicago, heartily agree. Which is why, after six years of hosting gardening and cooking classes for adults – with the odd, one-off kids class thrown into the mix – they’re thrilled to have arrived at a point in their growth where they feel ready to take  on   some more permanent kids programming this fall.

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And SO (drumroll…), in partnership with the Chicago Park District (which provides the kids, through their regular after-school program) and a community partner  which provides the curriculum and teachers, and with donations from food-literacy advocates and home cooks like you, the Peterson Garden Project’s newest series is off and running. Their first cohort of 20 students – aged 7-12 – came in for their inaugural class this week: TACO SALAD!

“They were so excited that they got to do the hands-on stuff,” explains Kitchen Manager Lindsay Shepherd. “They were excited to wear aprons and mix the salad and cut tomatoes and things. It was really cool. They all wrote ‘chef’ on their nametags.” One girl proudly told the rest of the class how she makes eggs by herself, at home. Everyone learned where spinach comes from, and that the darker the greens are, the more vitamin A they contain. The students’ enthusiasm was contagious.

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This first cohort will meet every Monday for the next four weeks (five classes, total), and explore a new recipe in each class. At the end of the series, they’ll graduate with a cookbook containing recipes for all the dishes they made together. Along the way, they’ll learn how to read food labels, how to avoid cross-contamination when working with raw meats, how to balance a plate, and lots more.


An organization with deep roots

LaManda Joy, founder of the Peterson Garden Project and author of Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook, grew up with her hands in the soil. “I had Greatest Generation parents,” Joy explains. “My dad just passed away, but he was in the occupied forces, and my mom was a Rosie the Riveter, so that ethos, that sort of ‘no one’s gonna do it for you, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, we’re all in it together’ – I’d always grown up with that.”

It was her dad, she says, who taught her how to garden. That was how they spent their father-daughter time. “That’s why I love it so much,” she says. “He always made a point of explaining things. He had these stubby fingers, and before we would plant, he would soak seeds. So I remember him stirring corn seeds in a little cup of water and putting them on the hot water heater, and just explaining everything. ‘This is why we do this, this is why we do that.’ It mattered to them that they gave me that knowledge.”

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Joy has been amazed, over the past six years, to see how completely her community has embraced the project. “Last year we had over 1,000 volunteers donate the equivalent of 3.5 full time employees’ worth of time,” she says, in awe. “We get all this negative press about how horrible the world is and how bad people are. I don’t believe it for a second. People know how to be good. They know how to be together. They just need a place to do it. We can solve our own problems. If you believe that the food system is a mess, and I do, then there can be a lot of sadness and fear around that. And I think the easiest way to get to the root of it is to teach people.”



So is this new kids program going to be a permanent fixture at Peterson Garden Project? “It’s all just a matter of funding,” says Joy. “We’d love to have kids in there every day of the week if we could. It’s in a Park District, so there’s kids all over the place; they’re already there. They’re ready to learn. It’s a perfect partnership.”

Every day of the week sounds pretty good to us. Help make it possible; visit their campaign page here. You can donate, or even just spread the word to any Chicago foodies or food justice folks you might know.

Feeling inspired? If this grassroots effort makes you want to take action in YOUR neighborhood, or if you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.

Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Want to know what a sensory garden is? Want to build one for your ‘hood? Five easy steps, direct from one of our awesome ioby project leaders, right here.