Two years ago, when I was cooking with five girls in the convent kitchen at St. Martin De Porres in North Philadelphia, I dreamed that those lessons could be repeated in schools around the city, so kids who had never tasted fresh vegetables or prepared their own dinner could learn how simple and delicious healthy cooking could be.
Since then, a legion of people have dreamed with me and made it happen: This spring, 100 schoolchildren will be cooking such meals as winter minestrone and chicken quesadillas with squash and kale, and then sitting down to eat together, as the My Daughter's Kitchen cooking program expands to 20 classes.
The mission has not changed as much as it has expanded since the lessons began with my own daughter in 2012: to convince not only students, but also parents and teachers - and our readers - that it's possible to cook fresh, healthy, really tasty meals without spending a lot.
Starting this week and continuing for seven more, 40 volunteers - mostly Inquirer readers who signed on after reading about the program - will be cooking after school with students in Philadelphia and in Camden, teaching children how to chop, sauté, and roast, in this, the fifth semester of the program.
It would not be remotely possible without our continued partnership with the Vetri Foundation for Children, which shares the goal of encouraging children to cook and eat nutritious food. All the participating schools deserve thanks, for opening their kitchens and welcoming the volunteers. And I am more than grateful to all the volunteers who continue to step forward as we reach more schools.
Che Che Bradley, a teacher at Olney Elementary, who is starting classes there, was so excited that she inspired her husband, Joe, a culinary instructor at Frankford High, to join her. Their class has five boys - an all-boy first for the program.
"They can't wait," she said. "Every day, they ask, 'When do we start cooking?' "
Another volunteer, Ilene Miller, is returning to Philadelphia Montessori.
"I have volunteered for quite a few educational nonprofits over the years, and this has by far been the most rewarding," she told me at our organizational meeting several weeks ago. "The kids have been so enthusiastic and appreciative, and I think it's because of the small groups and one-on-one interaction. As a volunteer, there's really nothing better than developing relationships."
We are embarking on a new partnership this spring with the Philadelphia Office of Innovation and Technology, which has created a related pilot program to improve digital literacy. Instead of an abstract technology class, the kids will learn how to post photos and videos of their cooking classes, and research food- and nutrition-related topics online.
"We think food provides a great platform for teaching technology skills in unique and interesting ways," said Andrew Buss, who is spearheading the project. City employees Harry Fishburn and Scott Pinkelman are piloting the project at Russell Byers School, with a goal of creating a program that can be replicated elsewhere.
For the first time, we are branching out beyond elementary schools into one middle school, Roberto Clemente in North Philadelphia, where I will be teaching eighth graders, and into one high school, Cristo Rey in Logan.
Two culinary students, Daniel Corso from George Washington High School and Desjia Valentine from Benjamin Franklin, are joining us at two schools, continuing the partnership with C-CAP, Careers Through Culinary Arts Program.
And a few schools are adding classes on another day of the week to accommodate the students who want to cook.
It's so exciting to see students buying into fresh and healthy cooking. But over the four semesters that I've taught these classes, I've learned they are about so much more than cooking: The kids learn to work together as a team; they move from being novices to being quite proficient; they gain confidence in being able to complete a meal from start to finish; they take real pride in the food they prepare; they feel courageous, and sometimes even sophisticated, for trying something new. And they enjoy the calm, simple pleasure of sitting down to share a meal and conversation.
And so, the dream continues. I honestly can't see any reason that kids can't be learning to cook in every school in the nation.
A huge thank you to the Ravitz Shop Rite family for providing the food in the Camden schools. And to all the readers who make donations, know that you have helped to make the dream come true and are continuing to move it forward.
I'm told that grant-giving foundations require scientific evidence to prove what I know in my soul, so we are trying to find a way to measure outcomes. But I welcome ideas and expertise in that department.
I have my own proof, though it's not exactly statistically significant. My two sons never really had any interest in healthy cooking, preferring cheesesteaks and Skittles whenever they were buying dinner. But this fall, each of them texted me independently to ask for my kale smoothie recipe. And then each texted me a photo of the bright-green drink he had produced - with kale and almond milk and bananas and flax seed. And both told me how great it made them feel.
Miracles can happen.
My Daughter's Kitchen
The mission. To teach schoolchildren to cook healthy, easy meals on a budget.
The reach. Volunteers are teaching 20 classes in Philadelphia and Camden, with intent to expand.
The partner. Vetri Foundation shares the goal of encouraging healthy eating for children.
To support. Send donations to Vetri Foundation for Children, 1113 Admiral Peary Way, Quarters N, Philadelphia 19112; note "My Daughter's Kitchen" or go to vetrifoundation.org.
To participate. Submit recipes to be considered: Simple, 500-calorie, nutritious meals, prepared in less than an hour, for $20 or less for six servings. Send recipes to Food@philly.com.EndText
Read previous stories in the series at www.philly.com/mydaughter