Proof is in the pudding: My Daughter's Kitchen cooking program can be transformative

Maureen Fitzgerald (right) speaks with Kelly Herrenkohl, a representative of Vetri Community Partnership, which helps to sponsor My Daughter’s Kitchen.

Since the first time I made vegetable soup with fifth graders in a North Philadelphia school — and in the 85 or so classes I’ve taught in the five years since — I’ve seen over and over again how cooking and sharing a meal with a group of kids can be transformative.

I have seen the confidence that is built when a child learns to chop an onion, the excitement sparked with the first taste of a fish taco, the sheer joy that results after making chicken tortilla soup — something so good, and so good for them, that they prepared themselves.

But now, after a survey of students who participated in My Daughter’s Kitchen cooking program last fall at 35 schools in Philadelphia and Camden, we have more than just observations, we have tangible findings:

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Volunteers Jane Berkowitz (left) and Becky Bryan look over the recipes they will be using this semester in My Daughter’s Kitchen.

Ninety-five percent of the students in the program reported learning that it’s important to try new foods; 78 percent said they tried a new fruit or vegetable; 48 percent said they eat more fruits and vegetables after eight weeks of cooking class. Seventy-three percent said they know the difference between whole and processed food; and 52 percent reported cooking at home with an adult using what they learned in class.

That’s a pretty strong endorsement of this program, given many American children’s aversion to fruits and vegetables and healthy food.

My Daughter’s Kitchen continues this spring, with an army of 70 volunteers carting groceries, along with a dose of patience and courage, to 35 schools around the region to teach children how to cook dinners for themselves and their families. This week, and for the next eight weeks, the students will be learning how to chop vegetables, scramble eggs, boil pasta, and measure ingredients while they prepare nutritious suppers for six people for under $20.

The mission of the program remains the same as when it began: to provide simple, affordable, home-cooked alternatives to the fast food and takeout that have become the default for so many Americans. The genesis of the program was my own daughter, then a recent college grad living on her own, who asked me for recipes for cheap and healthy meals. I realized that these meals would be great for any family, but especially for families in neighborhoods where there aren’t many healthy take-out options, and where diabetes, heart disease, and obesity — diseases often resulting from a poor diet — have become epidemic.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Maureen Fitzgerald greets this semester’s My Daughter’s Kitchen volunteers.

And what better place to introduce healthier options than in after-school cooking classes for children?

Each semester since we began in 2013, volunteers (most of whom are Inquirer and Daily News readers) work through a cookbook of recipes with small groups of children. The goal is to demonstrate that, with a little instruction, they can cook for themselves, and that “healthy” dinners do not have to be boring and bland but can actually be quite tasty. This spring, we’ll be making nutritious versions of meals such as breakfast burritos, braised greens and baked cornflake chicken, and spicy roasted broccoli pasta.

We know how much the children learn from the reports submitted by the volunteers that we publish in the Food section and online at philly.com. But the survey, conducted by Vetri Community Partnership (which we are so grateful to have as our partner and which handles the administration of the program), affirms so many wonderful outcomes.

The students reported not only learning simple cooking skills — 89 percent reported improving their cutting, peeling, and grating skills — but also life skills. About 80 percent said they got better at being patient, better at listening to others because they had to work together, and better at taking suggestions from others. It’s hard to imagine a better template for building success.

Results from the volunteer surveys were also promising: About 30 percent felt their students took a significant interest in making healthy choices; 60 percent reported a moderate interest. Fifty percent reported a significant change in culinary confidence and passion for cooking, while another 50 percent reported a moderate change. Pretty encouraging after an eight-week program.

Though the program was created for students, it’s been wonderful to see the benefits for the volunteers, including friendships forged among the cooking partners, and the delight taken in the accomplishments of their charges.

“It’s been amazing,” Bonnie Benson said at our meeting of volunteers last week. “I am so surprised at the success we’ve had getting the kids to eat vegetables. They are willing to try!” Another bonus for Benson: her cooking partner, Ellen Quinn, is a friend from high school whom she previously saw maybe once a year. The two now see each other every week when they are cooking.

(We still need more volunteers, please email me if you are interested.)

As of last fall, we’ve enrolled nearly 1,300 students since the program began. We’ve prepared more than 1,200 home-cooked meals and logged more than 6,500 volunteer hours. More than $171,000 has been donated to support this endeavor. Our most sincere thanks to all who have donated and who continue to give.

When I started this program, my primary goal was to teach kids the benefits of cooking for themselves. The survey found that 96 percent of the students reported learning that “making meals that are good for me is easy and fun.”

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Contact Maureen Fitzgerald at mydaughterskitchen@gmail.com.