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Cooking Matters helps kids eat healthy food

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Seven and one quarter teaspoons of Crisco slapped between two buns do not convince Simone Brown. This is definitely not an acceptable dinner. "It looked creepy! And it tasted horrrrrible!" she exclaimed, earnestly nodding yes, she did in fact take a teeny bite.

Brown, a second grader at Estes Hills Elementary School in Chapel Hill, had her first taste of "blubber burger" at the school's cafeteria, where families have met weekly for a cooking and nutrition program called Cooking Matters.

Combined with weekly nutrition lessons, Cooking Matters gives participants the tools and skills to plan, budget and prepare healthy meals. It's hosted by Community Nutrition Partnership (CNP), a nonprofit based in Chapel Hill that serves Orange County's low-income residents.

Earlier this spring, families looked at the amount of fat in fast-food burgers. It's a simple equation: 4 grams fat equals 1 teaspoon blubber. And that's how they met the real Big Mac. Seven and a quarter teaspoons of Crisco, or the equivalent amount of fat in this monstrosity.

The kids also converted grams of sugar in beverages, such as Coke, Snapple and Gatorade, to teaspoons and found they need new favorite drinks.

Kisa Brown, Simone's mother, said that her daughter now takes a serious look at the fat and sugar content of foods before deciding what to eat. Families also learned about healthy alternatives to fast-food burgers, such as grilling your own burger at home using leaner meats.

Jillian Mickens, CNP program manager, has seen the need for these types of programs in Orange County. According to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled from 2007 to 2011, 16.9 percent of Orange County residents were living below poverty level, compared to 16.1 percent statewide. In Chapel Hill, the percentage jumps to 22.1.

"People seem to forget that, I guess, especially in an affluent place like Chapel Hill," Mickens said. "It's not hard to find people that need assistance with food or nutrition education or hands-on training about how to cook healthy."

Cooking Matters is offered nationwide through the nonprofit Share Our Strengths and its No Kid Hungry campaign. CNP works with the campaign and its partner Inter-Faith Food Shuttle to offer programs to teens, adults and families in Orange County. As host, CNP provides the cooking supplies, food and volunteers for Cooking Matters, plus extra ingredients for participants to cook class recipes at home.

"Programs like this are about growing the whole child, which is the vision of the district," Estes Hills Principal Drew Ware said. "It's about bringing families together with the school."

Mary Andrews, a literacy teacher at Estes Hills, organizes the program. "You see children engaged in cooking, asking good questions and trying new foods—trying things they would never try when they're at home," she said.

The families recently met for their final class and graduation. Homemade sliders (made from antibiotic- and hormone-free meat) with fresh toppings, fruit and guacamole were on the menu. After a Jeopardy-style game reviewing the highlights from nutrition lessons, the families began cooking.

Carol Centeno, a freshman at East Chapel Hill High, dipped a fork into the guacamole for a taste test. "It's perfect. Better than my mom's!" she decided. "Oh, you're fired as my daughter!" her mother quipped. "And you can quote me on that!"

Norma Centeno, a district interpreter for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, volunteers and works with the program's Spanish-speaking families. This session there are two, and Centeno said Cooking Matters has provided an inviting environment for the parents to ask questions and learn about healthy eating alongside their children.

Laura Matthews, a parent, supervised while the kids washed up and heartily squashed meat into mini patties. This was her first year participating in the program with her 9-year-old daughter. "It removes the fear of getting in the kitchen and getting their hands in the food," Matthews said. "It's simple food and it's kid-friendly. You just cook it up in 30 minutes and there's dinner."

A fourth grader at Estes Hills, Alfonzia Perry, who goes by A.J., is in his second year in the program. "Hey, we have to focus on cooking!" he shouted to his peers, who were abandoning their burger stations to make paper airplanes.

"It's de-licious!" A.J. declared, biting into the slider. "Cooking's great!" he added, waving his burger in the air. "Just to make something delicious and then taste your own creation—it's great!"

A.J.'s mother, Wanda Williams, feels the program is crucial to teaching kids that cooking isn't a gender thing. "Everyone should know how to cook, boys and girls," Williams said. "I think that if it's offered early enough, like in elementary, it really makes their minds more open for seeing how fun it can be."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Are you going to eat that?."

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