Boardman students cook up healthy choices

BOARDMAN — Yanelis Sierra’s three favorite foods begin with a “G,” an “S” and a “C,” but they are far from graham crackers, sausage and chips.

“It’s important to eat healthy because you have a lot of nutrients in your body. I eat pretty well at home, too,” Yanelis, a Stadium Drive Elementary School student, said.

The third grader added that her favorite selections are grapes, strawberries and carrots.

Yanelis not only enjoyed eating from such a healthy list, but was happy to pitch in to prepare those and other high-nutrition items as part of a special Tot Chef program Wednesday afternoon at the school, 111 Stadium Drive.

Also on hand were six representatives with the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce as well as the United States Department of Agriculture to see the program in action.

About 30 third-graders washed their hands, donned chef’s hats and got down to business to work collaboratively around a large table in the school kitchen, then used a variety of small and safe cutting implements to prepare trays of turkey ham, cucumbers, whole-grain pizza dough, a variety of cheeses, rye and other types of dark bread, zucchini, grapes and watermelon.

Afterward, the students placed the items in bento boxes and ate their creations in the cafeteria. A bento is a take-out, single-port or home-packed meal, the likes of which are popular in Japan, Singapore, China and other parts of Southeast Asia.

The Tot Chef program is the idea of Natalie Winkle, the district’s food services director who began the effort in the district about 10 years ago but had to place it on hold for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I wanted the kids to be able to go home from school and make a nutritious snack, as opposed to grabbing a bag of chips and cookies,” Winkle said.

While many young people are drawn to junk food with little nutritional value, it’s vital they learn that better alternatives are readily available for them. Nevertheless, it’s also important to teach good nutrition in a manner that’s fun and enjoyable, and incorporates positive peer pressure from friends — all of which will make the desired results more likely, she explained.

Winkle conducts six-week courses on good nutrition one hour per week, at the start of which many students are hesitant to try spinach and other greens that may be foreign to them. As the classes move forward, however, that reluctance often morphs into resolve to eat more leafy green vegetables and other healthful foods, Winkle said.

The after-school classes, courtesy of a $2,500 grant she was awarded last May, are limited to 30 students per session mainly for safety reasons, because knives and other sharp implements are used, she continued.

Earlier this school year, an estimated 90 third-graders from Stadium Drive as well as West Boulevard and Robinwood Lane elementary schools were in the program to learn about good nutrition, kitchen safety and other basics. Later, Winkle got word that the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce had expressed an interest in seeing her program, so she decided to run an extra session this spring for an additional 30 students.

Rebecca Naab, ODE’s farm-to-school specialist, called Winkle’s idea “super innovative and creative.” Naab added she would like other schools across the state to develop and implement similar programs tailored to their students’ needs.

Along those lines, the department is committed to supporting schools statewide that are interested in promoting educational programs in food preparation and agriculture, she noted.

Learning to cook, prepare and include healthful choices in young people’s diets is not only beneficial to their well-being, it also teaches powerful lessons on taking care of oneself in the long run. In addition, doing so carries lifelong ramifications, Naab said.

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