The Student Wellness Education & Enrichment Team (SWEET) originally began in the spring of 2011 at Central High School with funds made available by the MN Statewide Health Improvement Program(SHIP).We were approached as a possible partner because of our existing community outreach efforts.
SWEET was a ten-week program in which the teens learned whole food cooking basics (beans, rice, grains, and produce), some rudimentary knife skills and menu planning followed by preparing a healthy meal for their families. They were also required to develop an educational workshop, which they did with third graders at Nettleton Elementary. At the end of the session, they prepared a communal meal for themselves from menu to clean up.
Due to a lack of funding, SWEET was suspended for the school year 2011-2012. At this time, Central HS was closed and most of the Central students were moved to Denfeld High School, which is located in an area underserved by grocery stores and has a higher number of financially stressed families than the other high school in Duluth. Conversations began with Deb Wendling, a health educator at Denfeld, about reinstating SWEET for the 2012 –2013. Although she was able to secure a small grant to begin SWEET again, the program had to be scaled back due to the reduced funding.
Whole Foods Co-op provides SWEET with all of the cooking and knife skill instruction, ingredients and educational materials, educator support for the non-cooking portion of the curriculum, and a Joy of Cooking for each student. We were also able to secure a donation of one cutting board for each student from Epicurean, one of our vendors.
1) SWEET educates the high schoolers about their food choices and presents new foods. This portion of the curriculum is reinforced with an ongoing assignment to try something new each week, which we discuss as a group as each week’s class begins.
2) SWEET participants learn basic cooking skills. Using food groups as a platform, the teens learn basic knife skills (produce, meat) and cooking-from-scratch basics (produce, meat, meat alternatives, beans, rice and grains)through discussion, tasting and hands-on activities.
3) SWEET participants will share their new skills with their families by putting together a menu and preparing healthy chicken or vegetable based meal for them.
4) SWEET participants will take the knowledge they have gained and present it to their peers. This year, they have chosen to do an expo at Denfeld with stations illustrating healthy eating choices and a healthy snack sample prepared by them.
I think the impact of SWEET is best summed up by one of the participants: "Joining SWEET has taught me how to look at food differently. This is my 2nd year in the program. I love learning about healthier options and alternatives to my regular diet. SWEET is the best part of my Mondays! It teaches me how to eat healthier and smarter for the rest of my life." -Matthew F. Johnson, Class of 2013. It should be noted that since Matt was first involved in SWEET at Central, he has lost weight, uses his skills to mentor current SWEET students and has been accepted into the Culinary Institute of America in New York for his post-secondary education. I have already seen an improvement in the willingness of the students to try new things both at home and during SWEET (their favorite item last week was baked tofu!) One student in particular was reluctant to use the large chef's knife. With the one-on-one instruction we can provide, she has gained confidence and speed with her knife skills.
"I have been the primary cooking/food skills instructor for SWEET since its inception. Through my other community outreach, it has become apparent that cooking from scratch is a fading skill. During this year’s SWEET knife skills class, I had a student who had never seen a cheese grater or how to use it. This illustrates to me how badly these skills are needed. I believe that knowing where your food comes from and how to prepare it are basic life skills that can help these kids far beyond high school. This group is diverse in gender, race and age, which is building community within the school as well. It is my hope that with additional funding, we can extend SWEET education this year and continue into the 2013 –2014 school year." - Shannon Szymkowiak, Promotions & Education Manager, Whole Foods Co-op