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Oklahoma State University

Cooking for kids

Tue, October 11, 2016
Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources

Nutrition program combats obesity and hunger

The Cooking for Kids skills-development program helps school nutrition professionals build expertise in providing flavorful and healthy school breakfast and lunch programs. Photo/Todd Johnson

When revamped federal school nutrition guidelines established by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 went into effect nationally in time for the 2012-13 academic year, school nutrition professionals were presented with a challenge: Offer meals that are not only tasty and appealing, but also are nutritionally balanced.

To help schools across the state meet this challenge head on, the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and the Oklahoma State Department of Education joined forces with industry chefs to launch Cooking for Kids, an innovative skills-development program designed to enhance the culinary expertise of school nutrition professionals.

“Both at home and at school, we’ve trended toward relying more on fast food and convenience food,” said Deana Hildebrand, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist. “So, before we can ask for healthier, tastier, fresher food in our schools, we have to give our nutrition professionals the opportunity to build the right skill set. That’s what Cooking for Kids is all about.”

Currently entering the third year of a five-year partnership funded by a grant from the Oklahoma State Department of Education Child Nutrition Programs with USDA flow-through funds, Cooking for Kids is simmering on all burners. The program collaborated with three lead chefs to develop the Cooking for Kids culinary curriculum, which emphasizes skills needed to increase availability of freshly prepared foods.

The curriculum was piloted in six schools in 2014. Then, in the summer of 2015, 287 school nutrition professionals representing 71 Oklahoma school districts took advantage of Cooking for Kids regional training sessions. It covered topics such as food safety; knife skills; building flavor without added, sugar, fat or salt; developing taste preferences for fruits and vegetables; and promoting healthy food options to students.

Beginning in 2016, schools with staff that completed the skill development training will be eligible for on-site consultations with a chef. Additionally, the program also will include a website with nutrition education resources for use by classroom teachers.

The 2010 federal law was designed, in part, to target two long-term goals: reduce childhood hunger and address childhood obesity. Because school meals may be the primary source of nutrition for some kids, especially ones who are both food insecure and obese, cafeteria fare needs to be both nutritious and taste good to children.

“Research has shown pairing schools and chefs is a great way to change menus so they are healthy as well as appealing to kids,” Hildebrand said. “We want to encourage as many kids as possible to eat in the cafeteria because it’s a low-cost source of a healthy meal.”

Participation in Cooking for Kids, including the training sessions and chef consultations, is free and open to every Oklahoma school. That unique feature of the program means even smaller school districts that may not be able to hire a corporate chef are able to participate.

“The nutrition professionals who have participated so far are excited about their new skills and anxious to apply what they’re learning,” Hildebrand said. “We’re all excited about what this means for Oklahoma students – healthier meals that will help fuel their performance in the classroom and beyond.”

By Leilana McKindra

College News Network

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