Short single-file lines form beside a table with three hot plates at the Blue Hill Boys & Girls Club in Dorchester. The three girls at the front of each line mix two eggs and assorted veggies in a bowl. On the opposite side of the table, Bill Yosses, former White House pastry chef, is instructing the girls to pour their bowls of goo onto the hot plates, and a collective giggle resounds through the room as the yolky concoctions sizzle.
This is the first time the majority of the 10 girls have ever cooked an omelet — a fact that Yosses, Sally Sampson, president and founder of ChopChop Magazine, and the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation are hoping to change through a series of healthy eating classes at several New England Boys & Girls Clubs.
The Dorchester program is part of the series, which is aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds. The weeklong program kicked off in Worcester in early July and will continue in six Boys & Girls Clubs in the Boston area and eight in New Hampshire this fall, to reach about 200 kids total. The program is funded through a $100,000 grant from the Harvard Pilgrim foundation.
“There is a whole generation of parents across the income and age spectrum that can’t cook, so they do takeout,” says Harvard Pilgrim president Karen Voci. “So we decided to skip a generation and see if these kids could bring the skills they learned back home to their families.”
Throughout the week, students learn how to make yogurt parfaits, deviled eggs, beanie burgers, and salads. Fall classes will add seasonal dishes such as soups and chili. Yosses, who worked at the White House from 2006 until June of this year, thinks adults need to give children more credit in the kitchen. “Teaching knife skills and cooking safety at a young age is crucial for kids to not be afraid of cooking when they grow up,” he says. “We emphasize safety in the kitchen and teach them the skills they need to not be afraid they are doing something wrong.”
Yosses is no stranger to young kids in the kitchen. During his time at the White House, the pastry chef worked with first lady Michelle Obama on her Let’s Move initiative aimed at bringing awareness of childhood obesity. He says Mrs. Obama would have children over to the White House garden to help plant, harvest, and even cook healthy dishes to learn where food comes from.
Many of the programs already in place at Blue Hill complement Harvard Pilgrim’s newest initiative. In the last five years, the foundation has started several programs at the club, which include providing healthy snack options, maintaining a club garden, training staff members to teach healthy eating habits, and introducing more physical activity.
At the end of each class, students are encouraged to take leftovers home to their families in plastic containers handed out at the start of the week. Participants are assigned to explain to their parents and family how they cooked their dishes. “They feel a sort of confidence and responsibility after learning all of these skills,” says Sampson. “How often do you see young kids excited about healthy food?”
Yosses attributes their enthusiasm to their age. He has noticed a curiosity and willingness to engage in something new at this age that is much higher than in students who are teens. “They aren’t too old to think that they are too cool for cooking, but they are old enough to understand there is responsibility that comes with working in the kitchen,” he says.
After finishing the omelets, the girls gather around another table covered with chopped produce — both raw and cooked — of varying colors. All eyes are fixed on blue potatoes, which are a complete mystery to the wide-eyed girls.
“I don’t think I have tried a lot of the stuff on the table,” squeals 10-year-old Denise Brito of Dorchester. She reaches for the blue potatoes and drops them onto her colorful salad.
Others are a little more tentative about some of the mysterious ingredients. Sampson urges all the girls to try a piece of white jicama she gives them. Zyariah Sheffield, 10, of Dorchester, seems to like the taste. “It’s kind of like an apple!”
The rest of the students immediately bite into their pieces as their teachers smile with approval.