Something really interesting happened today. I went back for the first time after spring break to the 24th Street Elementary School in Central LA. For a couple of years now I've been going there every week to cook with the students. The Garden School Foundation planted a plot there and the kids grow their own fruit and vegetables. It's a fantastic program, one that concentrates on a hands on approach to growing and cooking fruit and vegetables.
The first surprise was to find a cooking station completed (in the shack we use as base) with a large working area and two (TWO!) burners. It's a vast improvement from the very basic conditions I've been working in there so far. It took a year to get a functioning sink to installed ... two years for the cooking station! We have to rely on donations, so it's slow ... but we are doing it.
Today I had planned a Chinese recipe: wonton vegetable soup. I thought that the veggie soup was a good idea when Julia Cotts (the plot's director from the Garden School Foundation) told me that there were a lot of different veggies ready to be picked, but not in large quantities. The decision I had to make was how to fill the wonton, but when I went to the supermarket yesterday I came across an exciting product that simplified my choice of filling.
It was a box of extra firm tofu! Nothing unusual there, but the package was endorsed by the movie Kung Fu Panda 2 and a funny cartoon of the animated character was printed on the label. I knew that tofu wasn't something that the kids at 24th Street were too familiar with being that its population is mostly Latino, but I had a feeling that the Panda would make the introduction of tofu easier.
So I settled for tofu and spinach wontons.
Today I had three classes from 9:30 to 1:30 for a total of around 75 second graders. After introducing the recipe I sent the kids with Julia and Megan to the plot looking for veggies for the soup. When they came back I showed them how to make the wonton and I showed them the Tofu for the filling. They went crazy for the Kung Fu Panda tofu. They thought it was cool! I told them it was a cheese made from soy milk and who doesn't like cheese?
They went to work mixing the spinach and tofu and wrapping the wont tons. We cooked them on our spanking new burner in a beautifully boiling pot of veggie soup.
I cook there all the time and I make it fun. But sometimes after spending half an hour making an elaborate salad for examples, a lot of kids refuse to eat it ... they are not familiar with salads and they are used to eating only certain things (taco, pizza, burger, chicken nuggets...). But today they ate their soup up like no tomorrow! It was beautiful. The veggies were "delicious," they said, the wontons tasty! "More soup Chef Gino." At the end of every class we ran out of soup ...
When I chose the recipe I thought that vegetable soup with tofu and spinach wonton would have been a tough sell to this crowd, but that little comic on the box made it all ... cool. What a revelation! Some genius in marketing thought about making healthier food more appealing and cool! Kudos to the Kung Fu Panda people for endorsing this low calorie, high protein food. And why stop there ? If we market better food to our kids just as we sell them junk food -- I promise they will eat it. As one of the teachers told me, "Why should the Devil have the best tunes?" I couldn't agree more. I asked the third class I taught today, "what did you have for lunch?" and the answer was a familiar "pizza and hot wings." They were telling me this as they were happily eating our veggie soup with wontons. Our kids deserve better than a soggy Pizza and hot wings for lunch. You make them (or let them make) something different and they will eat it ... even if it'll need a cute little Panda to make it cool.