At-risk teens learn why ‘Cooking Matters’

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Austyn Jones, 15, makes sure to cover every inch of a homemade pizza during the final Cooking Matters for Teens class on July 18. The six-week course taught food skills to junior high and high school students through a collaboration between SNAP-Ed, Ohio State University Extension, Madison Health and the Madison County Juvenile Probate Court.

(Posted July 27, 2018)

By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer

As a liaison for the Madison County Probate Court, Kellie Portman is familiar with the negative perception some hold regarding the youth in the system. But as someone who interacts with these teens and pre-teens on a daily basis, she knows the perception can be misleading.

“These are kids with great hearts and great brains,” she said. “We just want and need their brains to take less vacation days.”

Portman has seen a number of juveniles find success through specialized programs that introduce new skills into their lives. She says she gets excited when she hears rumors of a new program coming into the court system and could not help getting her hopes up when she heard that Cooking Matters might be coming to the community.

“I kept my fingers crossed,” she said.

During a typical day at work last year, the court office fielded a call from Deetra Huntington, the SNAP-Ed program assistant at Madison County’s Ohio State University Extension office. Huntington explained that the program wanted to collaborate with the court system to offer cooking lessons and food education to at-risk teens.

While personally ecstatic, Portman said the reaction from the parents, guardians and custodians of the teens referred to the program was mixed, at best.

“They didn’t see what cooking had to do with probation,” she said.

Some of the teens participating in the program weren’t too sure about it either.

“I thought cooking was kind of gross,” said 15-year-old Savannah Poling.

Portman, however, said she saw it as a great opportunity with hidden lessons.

Messenger photos by Dedra Cordle
Savannah Poling, 15, stirs a bowl containing ingredients for a black bean brownie. A rule of the Cooking Matters for Teens class was that participants had to try everything once, no matter how unusual the recipe.

“It’s offering life skills,” she said. “It’s like when parents want to hide veggies from their kids by using different means. This program hides the life skills within the cooking class.”

The first Cooking Matters for Teens class was held in mid-June in a classroom at Madison Health, a program partner. Over the next six weeks, the teens learned about nutrition, how to read food labels and how to prepare easy meals. They made turkey tacos, deconstructed a fast food meal, and planned a family meal on a $10 budget.

The final class took place July 18 with the teens making homemade pizza for hospital administrators, program coordinators and probation officers. While preparation started out sticky–Brennan Vallieres, 14, discovered that dough sometimes has a mind of its own, while others discovered onions really can make people cry–the team rallied to make four nutritious pizzas, a large fruit salad and black bean brownies. Though some wrinkled their noses at the ingredients in the brownies, they all followed the classroom rule of trying everything.

“They’ve been really good about following all of the rules, especially that one,” said Huntington, who often led or assisted in leading the two-hour classes.

After receiving praise from the now well-fed adults, some of the teens reflected on their participation in the class.

Poling says she has a greater appreciation for meal preparation and trying new dishes while Vallieres said he will be more conscious of healthier fare though he doesn’t necessarily want to continue cooking. As for Maddy Kovalcik, she says she might be interested in making a career out of it.

“I liked to cook before coming here, but now I really love it,” she said.

Though this was only the first of what Portman and Huntington say could become a regular program, both said they have seen positive changes in the youth who participated in Cooking Matters for Teens.

“Some of these kids come from unsettled conditions and are not always comfortable in new settings,” Portman said. “With this program, they have pushed through with something that many were unfamiliar with and came out with a bunch of new life skills.”

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