Cooking up community, life skills

Article by: LAURA FRENCH, Photo by: JOEY MCLEISTER, Special to the Star Tribune - November 15, 2011

Kids Cook in north Minneapolis offers life lessons for children that go way beyond gardening and food.


Sharing a healthful snack, including foods and edible flowers harvested from the Loring Schoolyard Garden are (from left) Kaya Caprini, 7, and her mom, Kimberly Caprini, Camille Becker, 12, Starla Krause, Robin Krause, Nancy Becker and her seven-year-old son, Joseph Becker.

Sisters Robin and Starla Krause learned about giving back while growing up in Kansas. Each put more than a decade into the 4-H youth development program, which taught them all about civic engagement and leadership.

When they settled in the Victory neighborhood in north Minneapolis, they wanted to find a way to nourish their community the way 4-H nourished them: Mind, body and soul. The result was "Kids Cook," which began in 2003 as an after-school enrichment program at Loring Elementary School, focusing on healthful foods that were easy to prepare. In 2006, a "teaching garden" was added on the school grounds. Now the program serves more than 400 children and has expanded to include parents, families and neighbors.

"Cooking is the one activity that makes all of the senses come alive," said Robin. Added

Starla, "Everyone loves eating."

The Kids Cook volunteers teach healthy recipes that are easy to prepare and require simple tools like peelers, mashers and, of course, fingers: Mashed carrots, roasted chicken, baked potatoes with butter and herbs. But the greater meaning of "nourishment" is always in the forefront. "The big thing," said Robin, "is to come gather around the table and celebrate together" -- a lesson they hope the children will take home.

Although kids and vegetables are not always a natural fit, Robin said, "there was much more 'eeeew' when the kids weren't growing the food. The garden helps them understand what's involved, to be respectful and appreciate the work that goes into the food." Volunteers also help children to understand their options: "If I were making this, I might not use broccoli," for example. Student responses include, "The garden makes the best meal I ever ate!"

The teaching garden lends itself to lessons in math (12 eggs cooked 12 ways), history (the garden includes the "three sisters" of Native American culture: corn, beans and squash), and science (students make their own ricotta cheese). Heirloom tomatoes and apples teach the value of diversity.

Of course, there's also biology involved: the students plant seeds in the spring, come back to the school grounds to tend the plants during the summer, and start harvesting in the fall. They learn the role of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds.

Neighbors Liz and Max Raivo-Lynch also bring three "urban chickens" over during lesson time.

The program has relied on stalwart volunteers such as Susan Telleen, who was the "third sister" who helped found the program. Another volunteer, Jonathan Miller takes the kids fishing on Ryan Lake.

As more and more children have grown up with the program, however, Kids Cook has become more self-reliant. This year, fifth-grade students prepared and taught lessons to younger students. Kids also involve their families as summer volunteers to care for the garden. Cloe Murnane, who started in the program as a fourth-grader, has made signs for the garden. Former Loring student Tyrra Johnson is also an active volunteer. The school's new principal, Ryan Gibbs, is an avid gardener and ardent supporter of the program.

The annual fundraiser is a pie auction, with families and community members bidding on slices of pie made by the children from raspberries and cherries grown in the garden.

The Krauses work on Kids Cook strictly as volunteers -- Robin is a food stylist and Starla runs a catering company. But they would love to see the Kids Cook program become a model for other schools and organizations.

"It's such fun to see 50 children in a garden on a summer day," Robin Krause said.

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