Cal Poly students are working to teach local middle school students about healthy living and cooking through the Pink and Dude Chefs Program.
Erin Miller, program coordinator for Pink and Dude Chefs, graduated from Cal Poly with a bachelor’s in nutrition in December 2009 and said one of the key goals of the program is to help middle school students learn about nutrition and healthy cooking habits.
“It’s a nutrition and culinary program designed to teach middle school students culinary skills, nutrition skills and life and health skills,” Miller said.
The Pink and Dude Chefs Program, which was started by Julie Chessen in April 2008 originally as the Pink Chefs, was implemented as an after-school program because there were few studies focusing on middle school students.
“There was a lot of research targeting elementary schools and high schools, but there was this gap in the research for middle school kids, particularly middle school girls,” Miller said.
After running the program for the first time, the middle school boys started asking why they couldn’t be involved, so the Dude Chefs program was created, Miller said. Eventually, the two groups were combined to form the Pink and Dude Chefs educational health program.
Though the program is run as a research study through Cal Poly’s Science through translational Research in Diet and Exercise (STRIDE), the main goal is to increase the middle school students’ knowledge and practice of healthy eating and increase confidence in the kitchen, Miller said.
“We want to increase the self-efficacy of middle school students and cooking in the kitchen,” Miller said. “We want them to feel confident in the kitchen, and reading recipes and creating meals for their families.”
In order to achieve that goal, Miller and Cal Poly student volunteers (site managers and Health Ambassadors), are implementing the program in two local middle schools. Laguna Middle School in San Luis Obispo and Mesa Middle School in Arroyo Grande are currently running the program, Miller said.
Both schools were chosen because they already had after-school programs in place, Miller said. Mesa Middle School was also selected because of the type of students that could be reached.
“About three-fourths of the students are on the school lunch program so they’re low income,” Miller said.
The program is run in three phases: Nutrition 101, Around the World and Cooking with Science. Each phase has its own set of lesson plans written by Cal Poly students and are constantly being updated and changed to meet the needs of the students, Miller said.
The students spend the first sessions learning knife, kitchen and fire safety to help prepare them for the cooking sessions where they get to put their new knowledge to use.
The teaching sessions for Nutrition 101 also focus on things like how to read recipes and nutrition fact labels, meal planning and budgeting and learning about the food pyramid, Miller said.
“We’re making what they like and what they request, but just teaching them the small tools to make those foods healthier,” Miller said.
Each phase takes six weeks to complete, with two lessons each week, she said. Each lesson includes a 30-minute teaching session and an hour and a half cooking session.
Wesley Maddox, a seventh grade student at Mesa Middle School, said of all the things they do in the program, the best experience happens in the kitchen.
“My favorite part of the program is being able to go in and cook the food,” Maddox said.
The Around the World phase focuses on ethnic cuisines and teaches about food in different cultures, Miller said.
Phase three, Cooking with Science, goes into much more detail about nutrition, Miller said. The participants learn about carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and other things that are essential for their knowledge of healthy eating.
Another aspect of the Pink and Dude Chefs is the family component, Miller said. The hope is that students can take the information and help influence their family’s habits, she said.
“The middle school population has the capabilities of influencing their parents,” Miller said. “They can go home and say ‘Mom and Dad, why aren’t you buying more fruits and vegetables for the home?’ and the parents are more likely to listen to them.”
One way to affect the health and eating habits of the middle school students’ families is to allow them to try the foods their children are making, Miller said.
“We have them make a lot more than just one serving of the foods they’re making because we want them to take it home to the parents and try it because if the parents don’t try it, they’re not going to go spend their money buying the ingredients for the recipe,” Miller said.
Paulina Arceo, an eighth grade student at Mesa Middle School, takes the information she learns home so her family can learn about healthy eating, she said.
“I have a recipe book and I show them and my mom actually cooks some of the recipes in the book,” Arceo said.
Kanemaru, who does most of her work at Mesa Middle School, said that there are lessons about grocery shopping in the hopes that they will affect what kinds of foods the families buy.
“We know that some of the kids actually do go grocery shopping or they can request things from their parents and I think that’s a big way to influence their parents,” Kanemaru said.
Kanemaru also said learning how to cook healthier is the basis for a healthier lifestyle.
“If you learn how to cook certain things, you feel more confident and then you can use that when you’re at home in the kitchen and it helps you be able to make better choices about what you’re doing,” Kanemaru said.