Youngsters in Fitchburg, Leominster get lessons in healthy cooking


By Amanda Roberge
The Worcester Telegram
November 1, 2015

Ruby Riggs, 10, of Fitchburg checks her quesadilla under the watchful eye of Abby Reich.

Ruby Riggs, 10, of Fitchburg checks her quesadilla under the watchful eye of Abby Reich.

The kids at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster have discovered that healthy food tastes better when you make it with your own two hands.

Thanks to a $100,000 grant through the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, sessions of healthy cooking classes have been taking place across the state over the last year, beginning at the Worcester Boys & Girls Club in July 2104. The grant was part of a much bigger initiative that sought creative ways to tackle the issue of childhood obesity.

“When we were looking at ways to address this issue, we realized that the cooking piece is incredibly relevant,” explained Mike Devlin, the foundation’s director of grants and initiatives. “As much as we want people to be educated about growing vegetables and having access to healthy foods, what good is food if you don’t know know to prepare it?”

Enter ChopChop Magazine – a publication based in Watertown that has provided the instruction and recipes for the class. Sally Sampson, ChopChop Kids founder, together with former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, developed the curriculum for the class and has launched it at Boys & Girls Clubs across Massachusetts for 8- to 12-year-olds.

According to Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Donata Martin, the relationship between the club and the foundation has been a positive one for years. She said having the cooking classes for the kids is something the club has been interested in doing for years but never had the means to make it happen – until now.

Corn and beans were among the ingredients used to make healthy quesadillas.

Corn and beans were among the ingredients used to make healthy quesadillas.

The initiative seeks to help kids realize that they are in more control of what goes in their mouths – and those of their family members – than they think.

“I have spoken to numerous members of the program who have left excited to take their recipe home to try it with their families,” said Rocco Spagnuolo, Boys & Girls Club unit director. “I overhear them saying things like ‘I never knew healthy food could taste so good!’ and ‘I never knew I liked vegetables’ and ‘I had no idea cooking could be so fun!'”

With the help of instructor Abby Reich, who is also a staffer at ChopChop, kids have learned to make everything from yogurt parfaits and salsa to veggie pizza and a homemade marinara sauce with pasta.

Reich, who has taught the class before at another area Boys & Girls Club, said the experience has been delicious.

“It’s always rewarding for me to watch a kid – who told me he hates all vegetables – to learn that he loves something we make,” she said.
Peer pressure, she added, is frequently at the root of that discovery.

Abby Reich, center, special projects associate with ChopChop Magazine, helps Meteo Quintero, 10, left, of Fitchburg cut some scallions while Christian Heredia, 11, of Fitchburg cuts some avocados during a cooking class at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster Oct. 22.

Abby Reich, center, special projects associate with ChopChop Magazine, helps Meteo Quintero, 10, left, of Fitchburg cut some scallions while Christian Heredia, 11, of Fitchburg cuts some avocados during a cooking class at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster Oct. 22.

 

“Whatever a kid tells you they don’t like, they are more likely to try it if all of their friends are trying it. It’s just the way it is,” she said.

“It’s fantastic to see kids become food activists,” said Devlin, who added that the foundation is looking toward continuing its work in fighting childhood obesity in coming years, this time with an emphasis on working with local organizations to provide more people with access to food.

The foundation has recently awarded grants to Growing Places, which offers hands-on technical assistance and education to gardeners in the Leominster and Fitchburg area, and the Community Harvest Project in Grafton to expand its production for its volunteer farming initiative.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” he said.