Kids on the Path to Healthy Eating and Maybe Careers
No more square pizza; the ProStart program lets students plan healthy meals for the cafeteria.
Vegetables – all vegetables – were out. Or so it at first seemed in Shawanda Evans's classroom.
Evans teaches culinary science at the Homewood Center in Ellicott City, which houses an alternative middle and high school. She was going through a list of ingredients for lo mein one afternoon in late December – vegetable lo mein – but the kids didn't seem to want any vegetables.
Slowly, though, they came around. It seemed as if an aversion to vegetables was a reflex that Evans knew was easy to overcome.
No, they didn't want peas … Well, "It's OK as long as they're crunchy and green," said Karen Kim, 15 of Laurel. Kim (the kids call her Sunny) actually really likes snow peas. So in they went. It was like this for a host of ingredients.
Except cabbage: "No!" "Yuck." "Well, I'll eat it."
Vetoed by a vote of three to one.
Evans's class of just three students is participating in the ProStart program, funded by a $30,000 grant from the Maryland State Department of Education and implemented with help from the Restaurant Association of Maryland Educational Foundation (RAMEF). In Howard County, the grant funds ProStart at the Homewood Center and Centennial High School.
The program focuses on healthful eating as well as teaching students about the ins and outs of the restaurant industry. As an added bonus, the kids get to create meals that will be served in school cafeterias.
Essentially, Evans said, "we want to prepare them for a career or just to eat more healthily.
"We want to teach them how to prepare a meal other than cereal or oodles of noodles."
ProStart is a national program with an industry curriculum that focuses on front- and back-of-the-house restaurant operations.
According to LeDeana Wentzel, director of workforce development at RAMEF, the ProStart curriculum is taught to 83,000 students in 47 states, territories and districts around the country. In Maryland, 92 schools – about 4,500 students –are involved with the program.
Wentzel has been with RAMEF for 5 years. Before this, she taught ProStart at Howard High School and she has a degree in home economics – similar to the modern family and consumer science curriculum offered in Howard County schools, but with a few major differences.
"Basic home economics takes a look at food from inside a house," she said. "ProStart looks at it from the outside and what you'd look at from a restaurant perspective." That includes costs associated with individual servings, nutrition and presentation.
In the classroom, this involves students preparing nutritious meals, testing the food themselves and sharing it with staff and students. The winning dishes will make their way onto the school lunch menu.
"We know that kids control what everybody eats," Wentzel said.
"There's a tremendous amount of peer pressure. If you have a group of kids that are determining these menus, then they have the ability to market that to their peers and then help their peers make healthier decisions."
So far, there's at least one dish that students will probably be able to look forward to in the cafeteria: Chicken Alfredo. It was a unanimous pleaser.
"I like anything that has to do with noodles," said one of Evans' students, Dianna Kwash of Woodstock. Kwash, 19, said she doesn't usually cook at home, "but I'm learning." She said she is interested in a career in food; she wants to be a pastry chef and is thinking about attending Towson or Lincoln Technical Institute when she graduates high school.
The other students, Kim, who lives in Laurel and Devin Patrick, 17, of Columbia, said that they do cook at home – sometimes. And with the skills they've learned in class, they should be able to make healthy meals for their families.
On lo mein day, Kwash wasn't feeling well, so she stayed away from food and helped with dishes and cleaning; Patrick and Kim did most of the preparations. Donning rubber gloves and white chef's jackets embroidered with "Howard County Public Schools" and "ProStart," they washed and chopped red peppers, carrots, mushrooms, snow peas and garlic. Patrick stepped up to tackle the onions, suffering a few tears for the team.
"Veggies will fill you up instead of meat," Evans explained as the students added bowls of freshly chopped vegetable to a wok, "but you can add chicken or fish if you make this at home."
Kim and Patrick took turns sautéing the vegetables, which they added to noodles that cooked while they prepped. A bit of teriyaki sauce and sesame oil and the meal was complete.
Patrick made plates for some of the staff he wanted to share with; their input will help the students decide which meals make the final cut and show up on the school's lunch menu.
Plates were made and covered in foil, the tables were cleaned and the chef's coats came off. It was time to get down to business.
"Can you make me a plate?" Patrick asked. "Can you make me a lot?"