The kids at Cramer Elementary School in Camden burst into the kitchen for our last cooking class with a rush of emotions.

"I'm so excited," said Star Marie Cebollero-Rodriguez, 10. "My mom is coming!"

"I'm so glad we're done testing," said Janaiyah English, 10, shedding her backpack and collapsing into a chair.

"I'm so hungry," said Chris Marte, 11, eyeing up the ingredients on the table. "What are we making?"

And in that moment, it struck me: These kids had each named a different bonus that cooking class can yield. The pride of mastering something new; a welcome respite from academics; and, not the least important, something good to eat at the end of the school day.

Cramer is one of 35 urban schools in Philadelphia and Camden, where volunteers (many of them Inquirer readers) have signed on for the mission of teaching students to cook simple, healthy, affordable meals as part of My Daughter's Kitchen cooking program.

But each semester, we see students benefiting in ways that go well beyond that mission. Marjorie Cutler, a teacher at Cramer who has a few of these cooking students in her class of diverse learners, said she had seen enormous growth.

Chris Marte (left) and Nyzir Jackson chop onions.
Maureen Fitzgerald
Chris Marte (left) and Nyzir Jackson chop onions.

"My students come in the day after cooking class with such a sense of pride," she said. "They couldn't wait to tell their other classmates." She said her students grew in confidence, and, as a result became more responsible and thoughtful.  "It made them feel empowered," she said.

For the last week of cooking class, students in the participating schools around the region vote on their favorite meal from the recipes they have learned, and then prepare and serve it to family and friends. The choices this semester were varied: cornflake chicken was a crowd favorite, as were the Greek turkey burgers. And though at least one class didn't care for the salmon cakes, a couple of classes voted for them as their favorite. One class made breakfast burritos.

Along with the meal, the students prepare dessert. This semester, it was zucchini, banana, oatmeal muffins. Nobody was too excited about those ingredients in a muffin, but it's shocking how fast they disappear.

The final class often proves rewarding for the volunteers, as they watch their students work so hard to create a special party for their guests.

"In addition to the preparation of the meal, the table was set with centerpieces of fresh flowers," reported Maria Brown, a volunteer at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kensington, "and specific plans were made for the plating and serving of the meal."

At Cramer, the challenge of preparing twice as much food was complicated by the extra students who came as guests — 11 enthusiastic kids in the kitchen, with varying levels of ability, all wanting to help. While overwhelming at first, we found jobs for them all, and it was a pleasure to see them all working toward a common goal. Keisi Cedano, 10, brought older sister Gabriela, 12, who turned out to be a real pro cooking the burgers on the stove. Anaya Thompson, 11, was another guest, who while sauteing  peppers at the stove, lamented, "I can't believe that this is what I have been missing out on."

From left, Yarethzy Campos, Dwayne Jackson, Anaya Thompson, and Gabriela Cedano make turkey burger patties for the final class and party.
Maureen Fitzgerald
From left, Yarethzy Campos, Dwayne Jackson, Anaya Thompson, and Gabriela Cedano make turkey burger patties for the final class and party.

At Comly Elementary in the Northeast, as the guests arrived, the students "wanted to show off their skills and invited their mothers into the kitchen to observe," reported teacher Lorrie Craley. "The moms oohed and ahhed."

At Bayard Taylor in North Philadelphia, volunteer Peter Landry expected the most inspiring moment would be "when the students paraded the platters of cornflake chicken, sweet potato fries, and oatmeal banana muffins they had made for their parents."

But that moment, Landry reported, was topped by the story of Angel Asencio, one of the cooking students, who was hospitalized the night before with an asthma attack. Angel insisted on leaving the hospital that night so he could go to school the next day, his mother said, because he "didn't want to miss this."

"We take our hats off to that dedication," Landry wrote.

Several parents remarked on how impressed they were with the children's cooking; they also asked for the recipes and said they looked forward to having help in the kitchen.

"You made these burgers from scratch? What's in them?" Lizette Ortiz asked daughter Janaiyah at Cramer. "Are you going to be making dinner now?" Janaiyah was noncommittal.

Teacher Marjorie Cutler has been so excited about the strides her students have made she is working on an article to submit to a journal.  "Parents think that learning has to be formal, in the classroom," she said. "But I've seen that cooking is one of the best informal ways to learn. There is so much math in the measuring and timing, and the students can see the importance of learning these things. They can see the real-world applications in something so practical."

Nyzir Jackson, 10, is one of Culter's students who has made good progress, in part, because of cooking class this semester. Nyzir articulated a few reasons why he enjoyed the class. "I learned how to chop fruits and vegetables; I learned that a lot of practice makes things get easier."

And, his top reason of all: "I made new friends."

P.S. On a personal note, my daughter, the namesake of My Daughter's Kitchen, who inspired this program with her request seven years ago for help cooking healthier meals, gets married in one week!