Nutrition class sets up camp on the Bayou
American Chef: Road Trip camp at Penn State will be authentic this year. I did my homework, and lived in Louisiana for the month of June, delivering a cooking camp program at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Bam! Did I learn a lot!
The camp teaches middle school-aged children basic cooking techniques while introducing the Choose My Plate nutritional guidelines.
Slicing and dicing lots of fruits and vegetables increases familiarity, and making recipes that are healthy and tasty has proved to be a sound defense in the battle against childhood obesity. Studies on the program since 2005 have reinforced the premise.
The chance to take it on the road and see if it could also work in Southern Louisiana, where the obesity rate increased by more than 80 percent in the past 15 years, was compelling.
Glenda Johnson, a nutrition professor at Southern University, was the investigator who arranged the 6-week program that included my separate cooking component.
The campers, from local families in the area, were weighed and measured at the start of the program and again at the conclusion.
After mornings of healthy cooking lessons, campers engaged in vigorous physical activity each afternoon, often outdoors in blistering heat. Various facilitators gave lessons on other aspects of healthy living.
Parents were involved, too. The program was free for the participants, even included a stipend, but a commitment to weekly parent seminars and camp attendance for the kids was mandatory.
Campers toured the Whole Foods market on the other side of town and the Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. The 26 campers were joined by a waning and waxing number of counselors, many who had no idea what they were getting into with their summer job.
After two site visits in the spring and a complete revamping of the camp curriculum to include more emphasis on foods local to the region, I drove down a carload of special equipment including a Vita- Mix blender that got put to good use each afternoon.
Certainly an easy way to increase fruit and even vegetable consumption is to create some frosty drinks for hot and thirsty campers. They balked when I slipped in some celery and cucumber, but each day the fruit smoothies were big hits.
Many camp recipes were just too plain for the palates of children weaned on Cajun and Creole food. The day we ran out of Tabasco sauce was sad. But once I found the spice aisle, and Tony Chacheres Creole seasoning blend, we started really doing some cooking.
Campers learned how to make stir fries, whole-wheat pizza and smoothies, but my own learning curve was steeper. The area surrounding Southern University is a food desert, and shopping at dollar stores or gas station mini marts does not make healthy choices easy. The closest Piggly Wiggly was heavy on the piggly and light on fresh fruits and vegetables.
While the downtown Saturday Red Stick farmers market was fabulous, it was far away. The closest farm stand was a resale outlet for mostly yams and peanuts, not local products.
Fast food outlets reigned supreme would you like a sweet tea with that? The Coca Cola plant nearby was a big employer and even provided fundraising incentives to local schools. Soda was cheaper to buy than bottled water. But sometimes a pickup truck appeared on the side of Plank Road with enormous watermelons from Washington Parish the sweetest I ever tasted.
After 11 years, Penn States cooking camp has never been more popular. This years enrollment in the Cook Like a Chef: The Basics program delivered last week, and American Chef: Road Trip, which takes place next week, is at an all-time high. I was fortunate to have the chance for a real road trip to a region that has the most highly evolved and distinctive cuisine in this country. Bam! I get it now!
Anne Quinn Corr teaches courses in basic food preparation and international cuisine at Penn State. She can be reached at 865-7431 and firstname.lastname@example.org.