The children gathered around the classroom table at Pinehurst Elementary in North Charleston are having a difficult time cutting mangoes. Ann Hoch, a former chef, is there to help.

“This is the pit,” Hoch says. “It’s too hard to cut through if you hit it. Work around the pit and show the mango who’s the boss.”

Fifteen minutes later, these mangoes will be part of a homemade salsa. Hoch, one of a handful of volunteers in Pinehurst’s Cooking Matters after-school program, guides the children as they cut the fruit. When fifth grader Thomas Euten is finished slicing, he holds the pit and asks, “Can I give this to the compost?”

Thomas is here with his father Jamie. On Thursdays, Mr. Euten takes time off to accompany his sons to this class where they learn how to cook healthier meals at home.

Lowcountry Food Bank is spearheading the Cooking Matters initiative, alongside various partners. At Pinehurst, they’ve teamed up with the Charleston Area Children’s Garden Project. Since 2010, the school has been cultivating a garden outside that’s grown into an active outdoor classroom, but this spring, the non-profit launched a Friday afternoon farmers’ market in the school cafeteria. Today, schoolchildren can purchase fresh veggies from Joseph Fields Farm, Rosebank Farms, Limehouse Produce, and GrowFood Carolina at rates cheaper than what’s available at the grocery store. Families receiving government assistance can even use their SNAP benefits to purchase the produce.

The Friday farmers’ market and Cooking Matters are reactions to the recent push to bring better food to our nation’s schools and to help our children — and their families — lead healthier lives. And if these programs and those like them are successful, we may soon see South Carolina’s dismal obesity rates begin to fall.

Produce Where It’s Needed Most

In the neighborhoods and trailer parks along Ashley Phosphate Road where many of Pinehurst’s students live, it’s easy to get a Big Mac or a Bo-Berry Biscuit, but the only supermarket in sight is a small Mexican grocery. For people who live on James Island or in Mt. Pleasant, it’s easy to take for granted how effortless it is to access healthy, natural food, but for the parents who send their kids to Pinehurst, buying fresh produce is often a challenge.

Lori Zeth’s son Jonathan is in the fourth grade at Pinehurst. When Zeth found out about the Cooking Matters program, she called the school within five minutes to register.

“Before this class, I would wing it when it came to making dinner,” says Zeth, who hopes to find meals that her husband will enjoy. “Now, I don’t go to the store without making a list. We have a family meeting once a week to plan our menu for the week, and apart from one night out or ordering pizza, we cook everything at home.”

Jonathan does his part, as well. He’s learned how to scramble eggs and make meatballs, and at the school farmers’ market on Friday, he picked up a bag of sweet potatoes to cook over the weekend.

First launched in March 2012, the Cooking Matters program is overseen by Share Our Strength, an organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger. In Charleston, they’ve partnered with the Lowcountry Food Bank.

For the folks behind Cooking Matters, the emphasis is on cost-conscious healthy eating, not shedding pounds. “This isn’t a weight-loss program,” says Dana Mitchel, a registered dietitian who serves as the Lowcountry Food Bank’s nutrition educator. “The goal is to help a community better utilize their food resources.”

However, Mitchel notes that diet changes often lead to weight loss. “By learning to read ingredient lists, what food does to our bodies, and how to prepare real meals, people are controlling their weight, and they’re seeing how they can budget for fresh fruits and vegetables,” she says.

Cooking Matters classes are a great deal for the participants. After each session of the six-week course, participants are sent home with a bag of groceries provided by the Food Bank, along with a course book full of recipes.

“I’ve found that kids are much more willing to try something if they’ve cooked it themselves and had an experience with the ingredients,” says Ann Hoch, who taught preschool after attending culinary school. “My mom taught me to cook from scratch, and I wanted to pass that along, that food is a community thing.”

While the students grow more familiar with foods like kale, cabbage, and kumquats, the parents learn about unit pricing and budgeting. Students are also taught that each recipe is just a guideline. This type of info may seem basic to those who grew up in a household where home cooking was a daily activity, but it’s new to many, and it’s changing the way families across coastal South Carolina are eating.

The Take-Home Lesson

By 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon, the children at most any elementary school are buzzing with excitement. The weekend is about to begin, and it’ll be days before there’s another test or a lesson. But at Pinehurst, the students eagerly visit the cafeteria, grade by grade, for the chance to take a bag of fresh produce home to their family.

The spread of greens, beans, and berries is impressive. There’s organic red leaf lettuce ($1.50 a head), broccoli crowns (25 cents each), mixed micro-greens (50 cents a container), and sugar snap peas ($2 per pound). On Wednesdays, students are sent home with a reusable laminated sheet that includes over 50 items available throughout the year. That week’s offerings are circled, and parents can choose what they’d like their child to purchase.

Before picking out their produce, students are offered a “tasting” made from the available food by a local chef, a Trident Culinary student, or a community member. This week it’s sweet potato, cabbage, and Greek yogurt coleslaw, served on a cracker. Next fall, organizers hope the tastings will be prepared and served by Cooking Matters graduates.

Rosa Delaney recently completed the class with her granddaughter, Nyla. Despite a lifetime of cooking, Delaney says she’s been adding more fruits and vegetables to her dishes than ever before, and she has eliminated soda from her family’s fridge, replacing it with water served with lemon.

“A lot of what I’ve learned is how to plan better,” says Delaney. “When you put your menu together in advance, you save money and you save time. This class teaches us to plan ahead to make it spread.”

The Bigger Picture

When Children’s Garden Project founder Darlena Goodwin first started working with schools to create on-site gardens, she recognized that there was still a gap in the process between learning and consuming.

“You can have a garden and teach children about growing food, and the earth sciences and nutrition behind that, but then the buck stops when they get home,” she says. “I thought, ‘If we can put farmers’ markets together in schools, they will have access to produce and the transportation to get it home on the bus.’ But then they don’t know how to cook it, so I said, ‘Alright, let’s put a cooking class together.'” For help, she turned to the Lowcountry Food Bank.

The pieces fell into place thanks to grants and partnerships, but it required two years to bring the first farmers’ market to Angel Oak Elementary on Johns Island in fall 2012. A grant from the Center for Disease Control provided the funding, bestowed through a partnership with South Carolina’s Eat Smart, Move More anti-obesity program.

“Many of these families live in food deserts without a full-service grocery store, and they’re not getting education about nutrition,” Goodwin says. “By putting an educational farmers’ market directly into a school, it’s accessible, affordable, and we have a captive audience.”

The next step was incorporating EBT benefits, so that more families would be able to participate. “I see families that go to the Food Bank or to their churches to obtain free food, but then they will go to the convenience store and buy junk with their EBT,” Goodwin says.

Each of those factors went into her grant proposal, which resulted in 17 months of funding for pilot markets at Angel Oak and Pinehurst. Goodwin and farmers’ market coordinator Kimberly Douglas are actively working to connect Cooking Matters managers with the farmers and suppliers.

“The goal is to connect farms straight to the schools, so that parents, kids, and teachers all know who their farmers are,” Goodwin says.

By the time the two existing farmers’ markets are handed over to the schools to manage, Goodwin hopes to bring markets to more schools. She’s also created a template for the program, so that any school can utilize her contacts and advice to launch their own market, even without the direct involvement of the Garden Project.

At Pinehurst, these initiatives are working. Although young Jonathan Zest may be goofing off when he bites into a jalapeño and promptly has to run to the water fountain, he’s also learning about how a pepper, in its whole form, can flavor an entire dish. And in a part of town where unhealthy eating is the norm, that sort of knowledge may soon be paid forward to both his parents and the next generation.

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