As I drove into the parking lot of Roberto Clemente Middle School in North Philadelphia to start my cooking classes there, my competition was staring me in the face: a giant Burger King sign.
The restaurant is not even a minute's walk from the school. Trying to convince kids to cook healthy meals in a fast-food world is hard enough. But with Whoppers wooing them across the parking lot? There ought to be a law!
If I needed confirmation that these students, like so many other American middle schoolers, were eating this junk, I got that pretty quickly: My five eighth-grade girls answered a questionnaire about what they eat for dinner and how often they eat fast food.
"Mostly every day," wrote one. "Every day," wrote another. Once or twice a week was the response from the others. Pizza, fried chicken, Chinese take-out, burgers and fries were the meals of choice.
It was clear I had my work cut out for me, as I attempted this class with teenagers for the first time. Over the next two months, we'd be cooking simple, healthy, inexpensive meals to encourage these kids to repeat the meals at home, and to think more about what they eat.
I certainly had the support of Pat Cook, the food service manager at Clemente, who had a dinner table and chairs set up for us in the cafeteria kitchen, and who donated a pretty flowered tablecloth, silk flowers, even a napkin holder. "I love that you are going to be sitting down at the table to eat like a family," she said. "That's how it should be. That is just gone for so many."
For our first week, we started with something simple: homemade oatmeal with a variety of toppings. My plan was to emphasize the importance of breakfast, and to demonstrate how oatmeal, a great, cheap, hearty source of fiber and protein, didn't need to be loaded with sugar to taste good. It could be dressed up with fruit, nuts, and spices and be delicious.
Nobody in the group had made oatmeal on the stove before, and they were not exactly enthusiastic. "I have to be honest," said the forthright Tatiana Castillo, 13, who sported a black baseball cap and braids. "I'm not excited about oatmeal."
But they were excited to put on their aprons and name tags, and get started chopping. After washing hands and washing the fruit, I showed them how to hold a knife and how to curve their fingers to avoid a cut. Then I demonstrated how to use a rocking motion, by cutting an apple in half.
Tatiana had gamely volunteered to go first - until she saw that first move. She stepped back, intimidated: "I don't cut like that," she said.
"Well, here's the thing," I told them. "It may feel uncomfortable at first, but like anything else, you get better with practice. . . . The bananas are an easy way to start - you can even cut them with a butter knife."
Soon all the girls were standing before cutting boards, taking their tasks seriously, chopping apples, bananas, figs, dried apricots, as well as the oranges we would serve on the side.
While they worked, I learned that Emily Gonzales, 14, wants to be a chef, and Jodallis Pabon, 14, wants to be a baker. Both girls are hoping to study culinary arts in high school next year.
When I asked whether they ate breakfast before school, only one girl raised her hand.
"Thank you for being honest," I said. "But I'd like you to think about this: Breakfast gives you energy and gets your brain going, and there have been studies showing that kids perform better on tests if they eat breakfast before school."
They were more interested in the chopping and measuring than the lecture about breakfast.
I explained the difference between wet and dry measuring cups, and they measured the milk and the water and the oats, and got the oatmeal cooking on the stove, with Jodallis taking the first shift stirring the pot.
I was encouraged that the girls wanted to sample everything as we waited for the oatmeal to cook.
"What kind of apples are these?" said Brittany Jordan, 15. "They are so good, taste them," she said to her classmates. (They were Macoun and Cortland.) "Can I have a banana?" asked another. Who says kids will throw fruit out if you serve it for school lunch? These kids were gobbling it up, and trying the dried apricots and figs, too.
The girls got the table set, Brittany folded napkins in threes, so she could tuck a spoon in the middle.
And then, when the oatmeal started to cook, Sharon Ward, the food service worker who is going to be cooking with us this semester, gave Madelyn Espaillat, 14, a tutorial on stirring.
"You've got to get all around the edges, Maddy," she showed her. "And make sure you go all across the bottom too, so it doesn't burn."
When the oatmeal thickened, we added a little milk to thin it down a bit, then determined that it was just about perfect. We set up a buffet of toppings, and each girl had her pick of the ingredients they had chopped, plus grated fresh ginger, coconut, cinnamon, cloves and a teaspoon brown sugar.
They all loved the smell of fresh ginger, but none of them relished the flavor. They all started with apples, bananas and brown sugar. Brittany also added apricots and cinnamon. "It was OK," she said. "I might try the toppings at home with Cream of Wheat."
Tatiana added cinnamon, walnuts and apricots. Did you like it? I asked. "Kind of, but I wouldn't make it at home, I'll be honest. My mom wakes me up too late."
Madelyn added cinnamon, walnuts and coconut. "I have to say the toppings make a big difference. I might make this at home for a snack."
Jodallis: "I'd make it at home, but I'd add peanut butter."
Emily: "I liked it, but it wasn't familiar to what I eat. We eat mostly fast food."
OK, not bad for a first class. Especially since I noticed every bowl was empty. And the words I overheard as they left gave me even more hope.
"I'm so glad I signed up for this," said Brittany.
"I didn't love the oatmeal," said Tatiana. "But the class is awesome."