Join The Food Revolution Cooking Club

By / Photography By Cayla Zahoran | May 23, 2013
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Food Revolution Cooking Club
Each student is equipped with useful cooking tools.

It’s a gorgeous spring day, and members of the Food Revolution Cooking Club at The Barack Obama Academy for International Studies in East Liberty have convened their meeting outdoors. They’re gathered behind the school, right across the street from the football field, where lies the Borland Green Ecological Garden, a community garden funded by Spring, a program of The Sprout Fund supporting local biodiversity initiatives in the Pittsburgh community.

After a tour of the grounds, which are just beginning to blossom with herbs, asparagus shoots, and little lettuce, the students will begin their cooking assignment for the day: beans and greens, and fresh salsa.

Slider Food Revolution
Kelsey Weisgerber

Club co-founder Kelsey Weisgerber gathers them around the picnic tables, covered with bunches of kale, portable stovetop burners, and boxes of bright produce. She asks that they split into two groups to begin cooking the recipes, cutting them loose to decipher the recipes and share the responsibilities. Before long, they’re dicing jalapeños, smashing cloves of garlic, and collaborating in this makeshift outdoor cooking space. It’s inspiring and incredible — there really is no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen with these kids. And they are working with some serious cooking game.

Samson’s incredibly small dice on the red onion is a sight to behold. Rhonna is whipping up beans and greens as if it is an old favorite dish — not a recipe just handed to her a mere 20 minutes prior. Molly is helping, too, while munching on raw kale leaves by the handful.

The club meets every Tuesday after school, from 2:30-4 p.m., to cook, collaborate, and discuss food, and is joined each week by a local chef, who demonstrates culinary techniques and cooking styles. By asking the students to choose the cookbooks from which they wanted to cook, providing each of them with a carbon-blade, wooden-handle chef’s knife to use during each session, and teaching them useful tips, such as “clean as you cook,” the club has empowered the students and taught them confidence in their kitchen skills. “We’ve given them the power to make choices about what kinds of foods are cool, and they’ve really delved in and taught themselves how to cook,” says club co-founder, Bobby Fry.

The mentoring duo shares a passion for food and wellness. Weisgerber is the food service director for the Environmental Charter School’s two locations, coordinating school lunches for approximately 530 students, grades kindergarten through seven. Fry works in the industry as an owner of Bar Marco and has made a point of sharing with these teenagers his food struggles as an overweight teen. Weisgerber and Fry dedicate time each week to spend with their foodie proteges, emphasizing cooking skills, of course, but also educating the students about all of the other important issues that accompany food, including origin, nutrition, ecology, and affordability as it relates to choosing healthy options. In other words, the club goes way beyond your basic home economics course.

Back to the dishes at hand. The salsa is a surefire hit, loaded with spice, and it is being scooped up with crunchy tortilla chips by the students, the volunteers in the garden, and me. The greens and beans are hearty and hot off the stove — perfect. Another club highlight includes the afternoon spent making sushi with Fukuda’s owner Hoon Paradise. That was a particularly fun day, says Weisgerber, who watched as the students went from considering the raw fish with hesitation to preparing and eating it with gusto. The session spent on how to cook eggs also proved significant. “Since it’s a magnet school, so many of these high schoolers are coming from farther distances, and some of the kids are waking up at 5 a.m. and not eating any breakfast. So for them, the skill of learning how to cook an egg first thing in the morning is really important. That seems to be one of the things that has translated the best. I’ll hear stories about them cooking omelets at home or cooking eggs for their family in the morning,” says Weisgerber. 

The One Young World Summit press conference at Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens provided a spark for the program, as it gave Weisgerber and Fry the opportunity to share ideas for continuing to involve local students with the Pittsburgh Food Revolution. Weisgerber later collaborated with Grow Pittsburgh to host a breakout session with some of those One Young World student participants, discussing the nonprofit’s Edible Gardens initiatives and gathering feedback on healthy school lunch programs. When prompted for their ideas on how to improve dining options, one high school student there that day, Latiana, raised her hand and said, “Well, you could come to our school.”

That school would be The Barack Obama Academy for International Studies, where the Pittsburgh Food Revolution Cooking Club was soon established by Weisgerber and Fry. The club is considered “a programming partnership of Environmental Charter School and Bar Marco.” It is also a component of Food Revolution Pittsburgh as a whole, which, inspired by Chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, is working to impact tangible and meaningful change in the way our city eats and interacts with food. The group is a collection of 23 One Young World ambassadors launched in response to Oliver’s food advocacy challenge.

Spurred by the success of the club, Fry is branching out, meeting with school board members and administrators to import change in Pittsburgh Public Schools’ cafeterias; he predicts these changes will develop over a 10-15 year period. His source for finding out what changes need to be implemented? The students in the Food Revolution Cooking Club, of course, and their continued thoughtful and useful feedback for how to improve food in their schools.

And though Weisgerber and Fry are still working to determine the scope and specifics of how the program will continue to grow into the coming school year, one thing is for certain — the relationship these students have with food has been forever changed and bettered.

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Food Revolution Cooking Club
Food Revolution Cooking Club
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