Photo by Jerry Gay
Ballard Cooks regular Anna Crook cuts up some greens during the Monday after-school cooking program.

Ballard Cooks: Cooking for a healthier future

It's 3 o'clock on a Monday afternoon and inviting smells are starting to waft through the second floor hallways of Ballard High School, luring the occasional wandering teacher or staff to room SW209 where Ballard Cooks is in full swing.

A collaboration between Swedish’s Ballard Teen Health Center, The Ballard Farmer’s Market, and Seattle-King County Public Health, Ballard Cooks is a program to promote healthy eating by introducing youth to fresh, local foods and teaching them basic culinary skills.

Part of the newest generation of community kitchens, Ballard Cooks is the second program of its kind spearheaded by Diane Vinh of Community Kitchens Northwest.

"We empower students to make their own menu choices based on seasonal, fresh produce provided by generous donors. Our after-school cooking programs help build food literacy and cooking confidence among Seattle’s youth, and they are a lot of fun, too," according to Community Kitchen Northwest.

From October through May, Ballard Cooks meets every Monday at 2:30 p.m.
All students are welcome to attend the drop-in class and it all starts with a group of students circling a table piled with fresh produce donated by the Ballard Farmers Market. All the produce is local and seasonal and it's up to the students to get creative and come up with some dishes to make.

"We are a produce-heavy class and the majority of our dishes are vegetarian," said instructor Paula Kieko, adding that an average, the class will produce 8 to 10 dishes.

Kieko, a self-taught cook, has been involved with the program since October, 2011.

"I'm here as an instructor but it is really about youth empowerment. I'm just here to facilitate safety and knife skills, and introduce them to fresh, local foods into their diet," she said.

With the produce being local and seasonal, students are introduced to many fruits and vegetables they may not have eaten before. However, it also meant that there were a few weeks when the class made every recipe under the sun with apples, and potatoes, or whatever else was in season and in abundance.

But with the Center of Disease Control and Prevention reporting obesity rates upwards of 18 percent in adolescents age 12 through 19, the program's main goal is to teach students how to cook healthy dishes and curb the reliance on processed foods, even if that means making 10 apple dishes.

"This program is a wonderful chance for kids to cook with healthy, fresh foods. I'm totally amazed by what is made in here," said Janna Pekaar, nurse practitioner in the Ballard Teen Health Center. "The food is fabulous.I still remember the fresh strawberry ice cream made last year! And a few weeks ago we had mussels and clams which were phenomenal."

During our visit, about a dozen students and staff whirled around the kitchen, chopping, stirring, baking. Everything was hectic yet organized at the same time.

"This is probably the most mellow of all the community kitchen I go to. There are a lot of regulars and there is a flow here. It works really well," said Darcy Buendia, a Grad student at Antioch University specializing in sustainable food systems.

Anna Crook, a Ballard Cooks regular, said she enjoys cooking and cooks at home.

"I like to experiment with different ingredients," she said while neatly chopping up some greens.

Another student, Kenda, said she starting coming to make new friends. This was her favorite class so far because they were making pizza, her favorite.

Nearing the end of the year, Kieko finally gave in to the students wishes and allowed a pizza and ice cream day. Though these weren't your average pizzas and ice cream. The pizza included toppings like leek and caramelized onions, and the homemade ice cream was made with fresh strawberries and served with a side of candied Asian pears.

"I hope that by giving them these skills they'll continue to experiment at home," said Kieko.

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