Kids get cooking with Green Aprons Club

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News | USA TODAY NETWORK
Taylor McKee, left, asks chef Jeff Sparicino questions about her veggie wrap at the Green Aprons Club two weeks ago.

While kids spread hummus and veggies on wraps recently, “Chef Jeff” went table to table at Owen Middle School, asking the Green Apron Club what the members learned that day.

Child after child, the kids talked about how good the freshly chopped vegetables tasted on the hummus they were eating. Wearing colorful green aprons, other kids extolled the pleasure of sliced bananas on peanut butter. Chef Jeff Sparacino, a veteran of the local restaurant scene, talked to them about the different flavors that each ingredient added to the ensemble.

Two weeks ago, the Green Aprons Club, held at the school in conjunction with the YMCA of Western North Carolina afterschool program, was a hive of energy and laughter. The kids were having a blast making (and eating) their own wraps, possibly unaware that they were learning a lot in the process. Learning while having fun is the whole idea of the club, run by Bounty & Soul, at the middle school. Making and eating nutritious food can be a blast – that’s the message the organization, which strives to connect healthy food with underserved populations, is hoping to convey.

Owen Middle School student Malik Hill gets ready to launch into his veggie wrap at the Green Aprons Club recently.

“A lot of people, and kids specifically, have lost that connection to where their food comes from,” said Jane Lubbers, a Bounty & Soul holistic health coach who heads up the Green Apron Club program. “It’s normal now to see food come out of a bag or a package, but that disconnect from the art of cooking means you’re likely to not lives as healthy a lifestyle.

“If you’re an adolescent who is overweight, you’re likely to become an adult that is overweight. So forming healthy eating habits at an early age is one of the most important things you can do.”

The Green Aprons Club, which started in February, is a 15-week after-school curriculum at Owen Middle intended to get kids excited about preparing and eating healthy food, both for themselves and their families. Each week, a half dozen to a dozen kids arrive at a classroom at the school ready to snack, have fun and learn something about cooking.

The number of students varies because each week kids can pick which after-school program they’ll attend. That makes it hard for the instructors to help the kids build upon their knowledge and skills. Next year the program hopes to change the model so that the same kids are in the program all 15 weeks, said Ali Casparian, founder and program director of Bounty & Soul.

The kids are learning vital kitchen skills, like what it means to chop, mince and grate. “There are a few rock stars in the class who can’t wait to get there every week to see what we’re making,” Casparian said. “They show up with wide eyes and curiosity.”

Kids learn kitchen safety and how to handle knives. They learn to read labels and recipes. Each week the group talks about nutrition, learns to make a dish and goes home with an ingredient. Recently the group made whole wheat pancakes with blueberries.

The produce comes from the produce markets that Bounty & Soul holds for its participants in the Swannanoa Valley. Recipes tend to revolve around two or three main ingredients, such as avocadoes or sweet potatoes (or dark chocolate!).

Organizers hope the club entices kids to snack on something other than chips and soda. Already the leaders can tell a shift in attitude among the students – they like the way fresh, wholesome food tastes, as was evident at the club a couple of weeks ago.

“For the most part, this is really new stuff for them,” Lubbers said. “They’re trying foods that I’m impressed with. We made a kale and quinoa salad, and they ate the whole thing. We make black bean burgers and there’s no way there’s going to be any extra – they eat it up. I’m constantly impressed with how open they are to trying new things.”

Casparian has seen that curiosity at the kid’s classes that Bounty & Soul holds at the weekly markets (for locations and more, visit Kids whose parents have said they don’t like certain vegetables, like eggplant and spaghetti squash, enjoy them when the veggies are part of a meal the kids have prepared themselves.

“It’s interesting to see kids decide what they like for themselves,” Casparian said. She hopes Bounty & Soul will be able to replicate the club in other after-school programs, and possibly in the county high schools, in the future.