01/23/2012 02:06 EST | Updated 03/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Food Literacy: Teaching At-Risk Youth Self-Esteem Through Cooking Classes


LONDON, Ont. - One 17-year-old boy measures flour and mashes bananas for chocolate chip banana muffins while another, also 17, uses a kitchen knife to de-seed and finely slice a red pepper for ham and cheese roll-ups.

A third boy, 15, has to work to spread cold cream cheese on the roll-up tortillas before adding ham slices, lettuce and the pepper strips.

Although there is chatter all around them, the boys don't say much, intent on their tasks during the first of four life-skills cooking classes at Belton House, a London residential group home for boys 12 to 18. A couple of other boys wander in and out, just to keep an eye on what's happening.

When the boy who sliced the peppers takes on the job of rolling and securing the finished wraps, the instructor watching comments that he did a far better job than she could. She's not just blowing smoke. He looks pleased.

Although only three of the home's seven residents participated and despite the slightly burned muffins (not the fault of the boy who made them), Heather Thomas proclaims the hour-long class a success.

Thomas is a public health dietitian at the Middlesex-London Health Unit and the organizer of the event. This is her first cooking class at a group home — another was planned at a group home for girls later in the week — and it is the latest step in her effort to bring "food literacy" to at-risk youth in the London area.

"We didn't know if even one kid would show up" for the strictly voluntary class, Thomas says. "So to have three, that's good."

Jade Vincentini-Daley, residential supervisor at Belton House, says she's quite certain the next three classes "will go even better because more boys will take a risk and decide to participate."

Those who took part this time seem to confirm that. Two say they will "definitely" attend the next class. "It was pretty fun," says the teen who made the muffins, something he has not done before.

The hope, says Vincentini-Daley, is "that this will help prepare them for independence so that they have a better handle on how to prepare healthy meals and do it on a budget and have more confidence in cooking."

Thomas's work in food literacy grew out of her PhD thesis, successfully completed in December. Since last spring she has been leading a monthly class with teens under the care of the Children's Aid Society. These kids are mostly 16 and 17, a mix of boys and girls. They have two-hour sessions at a rented church kitchen and typically make a main dish, a salad and a dessert.

"Usually they work in pairs and I just give them the recipe and the ingredients and let them have at it," Thomas says.

"I give them some direction, but I don't do any of the cooking myself. It's just a really low-key, fun cooking session. And then after we're finished, we sit down and we eat family-style.

"Actually, that's my favourite part because we talk about what they liked about it, what they want to make next time and what's going on.

"It's an opportunity for them to have sort of a normal experience around food that they might not be getting because they don't live at home."

There's some discussion about healthy eating on a budget — making things from scratch instead of using expensive convenience foods — but it's not in the form of a lecture. And each participant gets a copy of the recipes made that evening so they'll have some familiar dishes to make when they're living on their own.

Thomas also leads classes at Youth Opportunities Unlimited, a resource centre for 15- to 25-year-olds who are on their own and not in school, and she has held two classes for kids at London Cross Cultural Learner Centre, which serves the immigrant community.

"Having programs that are hands-on for this population (at-risk youth) is the golden ticket," Thomas says, adding the classes not only teach a life skill but also build confidence and self-esteem. It's important to let the participants take the lead and to feel they have some control, she says.

"The kids love it."

Thomas is not alone in her efforts to reach out to "vulnerable" populations. A group of about 10 health units across Ontario, including Middlesex-London, has just learned it is getting a grant of $100,000 from Public Health Ontario to investigate what food literacy and cooking skills mean to "priority populations." Each health unit will first define those populations specific to its area and then use interviews to determine what type of "food skills programming" would work best with those groups.

"The bottom line is that people just don't know how to cook any more," Thomas says. "We're too reliant on convenience stuff. We haven't been taught it and it's not taught in schools. So the impact it has, not just in terms of self-efficacy and self-esteem and confidence, but also in terms of your health, can be pretty devastating.

"It's food skills now, but it's really health later."


To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)