Culinary Club adds Gardening to Keep Students Engaged

Cecilia Araiza has been working in school nutrition for more than two decades, innovating new ways to keep students engaged outside the cafeteria with nutrition education opportunities. When the resurgence of the pandemic halted her Madison Park Middle School (AZ) Culinary Club from being able to use the kitchen for its hands-on learning experiences, Araiza had the idea to take things outside with a gardening component for the weekly after-school program. 

“Arizona has a great climate this time of year for growing,” said Araiza, Nutrition Manager at Madison Middle School. “So we chose lettuce, radishes, carrots, zucchini and mint, all plants which are easy to grow.”  The students planted the seeds in garden beds at the school at the beginning of February and watched the plants sprout. Taking care of the plants was the students’ responsibility, they would water the gardens during their recess time.

Students planting vegetables

By adding a gardening component to the Culinary Club, students are able to see how easy it can be to grow foods, even in their backyards. Earlier this month, some of the crops were ready to be harvested and with loosened pandemic restrictions, the students could once again go indoors. They learned to make roasted vegetables and lettuce wraps from the crops they grew. Araiza also showed the students how to make infused mint water. 

“This is my fourth year doing the Culinary Club…one of the most rewarding parts of this program is seeing the progress students made from the start of the school year to the finish. Some of the kids start with no knowledge of measuring and by the end of the year it becomes second nature to them.”  The Culinary Club is open to 18 fifth through eighth grade students at Madison Park Middle School.

The after-school program is a partnership with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.  The department’s Community Dietitian, Andrea Zechmann, helps teach lessons during club meetings. 

“We use the Food Smarts Curriculum through Leah’s Pantry, it provides us with weekly lesson plans including knife skills, the importance of eating the rainbow and food safety information,” said Andrea Zechmann, Maricopa County Department of Health.

Utilizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture SNAP-ED Connection program, Maricopa Department of Public Health is able to purchase supplies needed for the club, including electric mixers and muffin pans for each student. During the school year, students are given their own set of measuring cups and spoons as well as cookbooks, aprons and potholders to take home at the end of the year.

“The kids get really excited about making food to bring home to their families,” said Zechmann.  The Madison School District is located near downtown Phoenix and Zechmann says many of the families are dealing with food insecurity at home.

The Culinary Club tries to introduce new foods to the students each week. The students have learned how to make macaroni and cheese, cookies, chicken pot pie and cauliflower pizza crust.

“We were making fajitas and I could tell the costs of the ingredients to make them at home was going through the students’ minds,” said Zechmann. “So we talked about what they could use as substitutions when making the recipe at home for their families, if they don’t have fresh vegetables they can make the same recipe with frozen vegetables.”

The gardens at Madison Park MS

Araiza says the Culinary Club has been so well received in the community that she is often asked why other schools in the district don’t offer it. She has even had students tell her they want to become chefs after taking part.

“I wish more school nutrition managers would get involved to teach culinary classes and gardening clubs because it is so rewarding,” said Araiza. “It creates a good bond with the parents in the community and gives me a chance to communicate with them.” 

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