The Cookbook Project: Buncombe County Early College pilot program promotes healthy food habits

ALL CHEFS ON DECK: The 12 Buncombe County Early College students who participated in The Cookbook Project wrapped up the program by preparing a meal for invited guests. Pictured with the students on the far left is Alli Casparian of Bounty and Soul and, on the far right is program facilitator Carla Gardner and Doug Hutchman of BCEC. Photo by Cindy Kunst

This spring, a dozen students from Buncombe County Early College participated in The Cookbook Project, an eight-week food literacy pilot program organized by local nonprofit organization Bounty and Soul. Classes were held weekly after school in A-B Tech’s culinary arts department, wrapping up with the Food Culture Celebration at St. James Episcopal Church in Black Mountain on May 26.

With Bounty and Soul’s mission already focused on providing fresh produce and wellness resources to the community, The Cookbook Project was a natural fit. “Its core lessons served as a great foundation [for the program], allowing us to create a customized curriculum that is holistic in nature,” says Bounty and Soul founder and executive director Allison Casparian.

The Cookbook Project is an international nonprofit organization that began in Boston with a mission of teaching nutrition literacy and basic cooking skills to kids. Instructors can become certified with the project through online courses, then create a curriculum that addresses the specific needs of their community. “We’ve included a class on self-care that introduces the kids to stress management and yoga as well as a field trip to Barefoot Farm in Barnardsville, exposing the students to time in nature and teaching about the importance of eating locally and sustainably,” notes Casparian.

Class topics include nutrition, label reading, menu planning, budgeting and healthy substitutions, and sometimes feature cooking demonstrations. In the BCEC iteration, professional chefs were invited into the class to teach basic cooking techniques, knife handling and cutting skills. A notable part of the class involves sending each student home with a box of ingredients and information about how to apply what they learned for the week by cooking for their family and friends. Students are asked to share photos of what they made at home via a private Facebook page created for the class.

Student Kenji Labi says his favorite dish to make at home was eggplant pizza. “We’d cut the eggplant into these little discs, and we’d put on olive oil, some salt, some tomato paste and cheese,” he explains. “There’s no dough — the eggplant is the base. My family enjoyed it, so I’ll probably be making that again soon.”

The program focuses on individual empowerment through kitchen confidence for an age group that has significant influence among its peers. “A lot of the students that have participated in the pilot have really just taken ownership of what they’ve learned, telling their friends, ‘Oh, this is the smoothie I made; I put kale in it,'” says Casparian. “Kids that might not listen to what a grown-up says about these kinds of foods might be more likely to listen to someone their own age.” Students in the BCEC program learned to prepare an Asian stir fry, smoothies, eggplant pizzas, seasonal salads with homemade dressings, a variety of healthy snacks and quinoa dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

As the program grows, former students will be invited back to mentor and facilitate the next class. “The hope is that these students would become food ambassadors, and they would be willing to come back to the next cookbook project and assist where they can with the other students, so that it’s more peer-level teaching and training,” says Douglas Hutchman, the Work Based Learning Counselor at BCEC. “The kids are extremely engaged, they do feel empowered. They come back to us saying, ‘I tried this, and my mom absolutely loved it, and we’re thinking about eating differently.’“

Food for the program is sourced from donations through Bounty and Soul’s many partnerships with community food organizations. MANNA FoodBank, Society of St. Andrews/Gleaning  and the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden in Black Mountain are major contributors, as well as local farmers and home gardeners who donate excess crops to Bounty and Soul throughout the growing season at Bounty and Soul’s distribution locations.

At the Food Culture Celebration, the 12 students were organized into teams: Smart Cookies, Master Chefs and Red Hot Chili Peppers,  and had to plan, create and cook for their families and invited guests. Teams prepared an appetizer, entrée and dessert that reflect their culture at home. Dishes included a gluten-free fettuccine alfredo, Mexican lasagna, stir-fried noodles, Filipino carioca and virgin piña coladas, among many others.

In the end, the students seemed to agree that they’d gained some valuable knowledge — not only about how to find their way around a kitchen, but also about healthy eating. “I’m almost 18, and I really didn’t know much [about cooking and food], and I feel like I learned so much from being in this program,” says student Nizzy Caddick  “Especially about how much sugar can impact your body and how certain materials and ingredients can either improve your body or put you in a bad place physically.”


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