When Gladys Tong was looking for programs for her 10-year-old son, Joshua Young, to participate in this past summer, she had one thing in mind: quality over quantity. In other words, she didn’t want to overschedule him; rather, she wished for limited, but especially interesting, activities. Mother and son’s curiosity was piqued when they learned of a nonprofit organization called Sprouting Chefs, which teaches kids about food—how to grow it and prepare it—and how eating healthily is good for people and the planet.
“He loves to eat,” Tong says of her oldest child, who also takes cello and piano lessons and plays soccer. “Cooking is not something you immediately think of for a 10-year-old boy, but I thought change was good, and when I mentioned it to him, he was really interested.
“How do you engage someone at an early age to be environmentally conscious and to”¦understand where your food comes from?” adds the mother of three. “[Through the class] you appreciate your food in a different way. It was the highlight of our summer.”
Barb McMahon founded Sprouting Chefs last year. After she had her second child, the Vancouver resident wanted a project she could do on her own time, as well as one that made her feel good. With experience working in UBC’s catering department as well as at a kids’ camp, she put her two passions together.
“The first really good step to get kids connected to the environment is for them to see seeds growing into plants,” McMahon tells the Straight by phone. “It’s exciting, and it’s empowering to youth.
“Vancouver has garden programs in schools, but there’s nothing connecting kids to the food they grow and to cooking, and there’s nothing that supports those gardens over the summer. We really need the seed-to-plate connection.”
McMahon explains that she was inspired by Berkeley, California’s Edible Schoolyard. Founded by chef Alice Waters in a middle school in 1995, the project has a kitchen and a garden classroom and has inspired scores of similar programs throughout the U.S.
Sprouting Chefs has programs on offer for elementary and high-school students—including cafeteria service and an extracurricular catering club for the latter—as well as weeklong summer day camps for kids aged eight to 16. Among the seasonal dishes that aspiring chefs like Joshua made last summer were roasted-tomato-and-garlic linguine, edamame dip, and berry tiramisu. The ingredients are all locally grown and organic.
“We get kids to taste the difference between carrots they grow themselves and carrots they get at the grocery store,” McMahon says.
Sprouting Chefs will also come into a school and help plant a garden, whether it’s a windowsill box with herbs, potted plants, or a full-on landscaping job. Using community gardens is another means for schools that don’t have space for their own plot to get involved. The program also has “chef leaders” and “master gardeners” on hand to help develop a curriculum.
McMahon is hoping the program will take root in schools throughout Metro Vancouver and beyond, but she concedes that tight budgets are an obstacle.
“B.C. needs more of these types of programs,” she says. “The schools that really need it don’t have the funds.”
However, she maintains that teaching kids about growing and cooking their own food has far-reaching benefits. In a fun, hands-on way, it opens their eyes to issues of sustainability, food security, and stewardship of the land. It helps them develop life and job skills, and connects them with their community. And it gets them excited about eating things like spinach and kale.