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Flint, MI—On Wednesday nights, The Wells family gathers in their kitchen and join a Zoom call with other Flint families. Together, they cook a nutritious meal.
Chef Sean Gartland, culinary director for the Flint Farmers’ Market, and Sarah Egan, a registered dietitian, lead the class. This week’s recipe features a healthier twist on macaroni and cheese using whole wheat noodles, fresh cheddar, cream cheese, and milk.
Yemisi Wells’s three boys, Levi Momoh, 7, Joshua Momoh, 14, and Andre Johnson, 17, are among 250 Flint children to participate in Flint Kids Cook, a cooking series that teaches kids how to make healthy food.
After they finish cooking, The Wells enjoy the fruits (or in this case, noodles) of their labor while they learn why homemade macaroni and cheese is healthier than boxed brands, like Kraft. Whole wheat macaroni contains more fiber and using fresh cheese helps avoid harmful preservatives.
Michigan State University Nutrition Director Amy Saxe-Custack alongside Gartland helped launch the program in 2017 as a response to the Flint Water Crisis. Research shows that healthy foods, especially those rich in iron, fiber, and thiamine, mitigate the effects of lead in the body.
“We didn’t know whether any kids would show up when the program was introduced,” Saxe-Custack said. “Not only did we have full classes, but the kids showed up consistently. They were excited about taking a class from a real chef.”
After the pandemic hit, classes moved from the Flint Farmers’ Market to online. Local nonprofit Flint Fresh began delivering ingredients to participants’ doorsteps on class nights.
“I learned about bad fats and good fats,” Johnson said, adding that his favorite recipe was the pot pies.
Wells said her family generally eats healthy, but the classes gave her fresh ideas and new ways to think about meals.
“It gave us another opportunity to see what else can be cooked…. It was really different because of the combinations. I would have never thought of it,” she said.
But creativity isn’t the only outcome of the classes. A study of Flint Kids Cook published in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that participants showed improvement in their “health-related quality of life,” including “important changes in psychosocial health that were unrelated to dietary changes.”
Another study in Global Pediatric Health found that the program could be modeled in similar, low-income communities to “address diet and health of children and adolescents.”
Perhaps, most importantly, Flint Kids Cook encourages families to spend time together.
“What we’re hearing is that it has become a time for families to cook together and eat together,” Saxe-Custack said. “That makes us feel as though it’s something really special.”
For Wells, it was a lot of work because she kept everything organized and moving along smoothly.
“But it was worth it,” she said.
The course is free to all families and will last five weeks. Those interested in the program can sign up here to join the waitlist. Classes will be taking place throughout 2021.