Standing at the front of a classroom at Strathcona elementary school with a block of tofu on his right-hand side and a bowl of raw vegetables on his left, chef Brandon Pirie has a group of Grade 3 students rapt.
As he chops onion, broccoli, and red pepper, he has the kids’ undivided attention, some of them breaking into big smiles when the scent of freshly grated ginger fills the room. Pirie is there with Project CHEF, which teaches kids all about healthy food: where it comes from, how to cook it, what it tastes like, and how to enjoy it.
After his demonstration, the children work in small groups making that day’s recipe: a veggie-and-tofu stir-fry. They slice produce, mix marinade, and cook with electric frying pans before sitting down to eat and enjoy their meal together.
Chef and former teacher Barbara Finley founded Project CHEF nine years ago, the acronym standing for Cook Healthy Edible Food. She’s been motivated to teach kids about wholesome food ever since she began working in elementary schools.
“I saw what kids were eating, and it blew my mind,” Finley tells the Georgia Straight. “Kids were arriving to school with nothing but a Fruit Roll-Up and a Coca-Cola. I asked one, ‘What do you eat for breakfast?’ and the answer was ‘Cookies.’
“That’s just not tolerable,” she says. “We’re making choices that are incredibly unhealthy, and we’re seeing the repercussions in health. I see educating children about food as a necessary way to teach up: if we can teach kids, they go home to teach their families.”
Project CHEF engages kids in process of sharing food
Since Project CHEF started, with the help of 5,500 parent and community volunteers, it has reached nearly 11,000 kids. Using local, seasonal ingredients, the organization has several programs, including a one-week course that travels to schools throughout the Vancouver school district; an intergenerational class in which kids cook with seniors; and after-school, spring-break, and summer camps.
Finley, who trained at Dubrulle and worked at various Vancouver and Whistler restaurants before launching Project CHEF, says that giving kids a hands-on experience in the kitchen (even a makeshift one) goes far beyond developing knife skills.
“We have to engage them in the process of eating and the process of sharing food. There’s the social, cultural, and emotional piece that’s so often neglected these days; we eat in the car, shoving food into our faces when we’re on to the next thing. Here, part of the point of the program is to stop. We set the table and dine together and talk. Often families don’t do this anymore, but it’s such an important part of food education. Sharing food, breaking bread together, is sharing of yourself.”
Project CHEF doesn’t receive any government funding. Finley spends many evenings writing grant proposals and runs courses for as many weeks during the school year as she can drum up money for.
Some organizations, however, offer in-kind support, including the Greater Vancouver Food Bank (GVFB). It provides warehouse, fridge, freezer, and office space to Project CHEF and transports Finley’s 18 giant rubber bins full of kitchen equipment and ingredients to and from schools every week.
Kids must promise to keep an open mind about food
Under the leadership of CEO Aart Schuurman Hess, the GVFB is committed to developing food literacy. With prices rising in grocery stores, he says it’s never been more important to help people learn how to cook and how to appreciate simple, healthy food.
“We focus on connecting people with basic ingredients and showing them what to do with them,” Schuurman Hess says by phone. “People think food, cooking from scratch, takes a lot of time, but it doesn’t. With just a few ingredients, you can still make affordable meals that are very nutritious and healthy. I think we’ve lost that art.
“We’ve made food very complicated,” he adds. “We need to start appreciating food the way we used to and focus on enjoying it as a family together. It’s about bringing it back to the basics.…Project CHEF is a wonderful initiative that is changing the lives of many elementary-school children in Vancouver. It provides them with the food knowledge and skills they need to cook healthy, nutritious food, both in school and with their families.”
When Finley is in school classrooms, she says, students have to promise to have an open mind and an open mouth.
She recalls teaching one young boy whose parents insisted he was allergic to all fruits and vegetables; when she asked him to elaborate, he said he’d gag anytime he ate any kind of produce. Once he tried the fruit salad he’d made himself, he discovered he actually quite liked it.
“If we can conquer that, we can conquer the world,” Finley says with a laugh. Then there are the heartwarming moments that make her role that much more rewarding.
“We asked a classroom why make your own soup—why bother when it comes in a package and is ready in 10 minutes,” she recalls. “A little girl put up her hand and said, ‘You make your own soup because you put love in it.’ Our jaws just dropped, and everyone in the room applauded.”