Food & Drink

Penn State’s kids cooking camp inspires across state lines

Kids prepare a chopped salad at a South Carolina 4-H Healthy Lifestyles Cooking Camp in Beaufort County, S.C.
Kids prepare a chopped salad at a South Carolina 4-H Healthy Lifestyles Cooking Camp in Beaufort County, S.C. Photo provided

Penn State nutrition instructor Alison Borkowska pores over her to-do list for her cooking camp that launches this week. Chef’s knives and sharpening steels glisten behind the counters on the wall-mounted magnabars. Volume measures, fractional measures and stainless steel mixing bowls nestle in the prep drawers of the 12 separate kitchens in the well-equipped Foods Lab in Henderson Building at University Park. The commercial-grade stainless refrigerator is stocked with a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables to be turned into tasty dishes.

Check, check, check.

Borkowska is the camp director and leader of an A-team of six nutritional science undergraduate counselors ready to roll out the 15th annual Cook Like a Chef camp with the goal of teaching youth how to prepare healthy foods for themselves that taste good. And 40 Centre County pre-teens are getting ready to saute, simmer, knead and chop their way through the week, using the MyPlate food groups as a guide for presentations by the nutrition majors who gain hands-on experience in their field.

Now in her second year as cooking camp director, Borkowska says that what she sees as “most valuable is instilling confidence in the kitchen — these kids leave knowing that they can succeed at cooking awesome food, which is something many people don’t learn until way later in life.”

The world-class facility at Penn State has provided a culinary experience to more than 500 youths during its long run through various programming, which included both international and American regional components. But the program with staying power has proven to be “Cook Like a Chef: The Basics.”

In 2005, Marge Condrasky, a Clemson University nutrition professor and Penn State alumna, discovered the program through an internet search on kids cooking programs and visited that summer during camp week. Condrasky’s focus at Clemson is culinology, or culinary nutrition, a discipline that focuses on a practical approach to getting people to eat right. The cooking camp was right up her galley.

Impressed with what she saw, Condrasky realized the importance of evaluating the effect of the program, and by the time she returned the next year she had devised questionnaires that measured what was learned by the campers during the week. She published her findings in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior and Topics in Clinical Nutrition, which validated the program and opened it up to funding opportunities. Scholarships for income-eligible families became available in 2008 with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare through PA Nutrition Education Tracks, part of USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and have continued for the past nine years.

Condrasky spent time in the Foods Lab on campus during camp week over the years, often bringing along a graduate student who could benefit from seeing the program in action. Each year her research had a different slant, measuring “cooking confidence and healthy eating choice” or the “participation of dietetic students in the program.” And each year she wondered how she could replicate the program back home in South Carolina.

Condrasky may soon take the adage to heart, “be careful what you wish for.” Her summer is very busy. Ten camps are taking place across South Carolina, from the Low Country through the Pee Dee region, sweeping to the Upcountry like a swelling tide. The camps don’t all have a premier facility like the Penn State lab, but they are all using a simplified version of the Cook Like a Chef materials and they are all delivering the same message about healthy eating through home cooking. And in this inaugural year, the program is reaching more than 200 youth.

Driving this big combine, besides Condrasky’s determination, is a tried and true, old-school changemaker: 4-H. Pam Ardern is the 4-H team state leader, housed in Clemson’s Cooperative Extension office. Condrasky contacted Ardern about the possibility of cooking camps being added to the already long list of 4-H summer activities and Ardern took the bait. Fitting the cooking camp concept into the already established 4-H Healthy Lifestyles initiative was easy, especially with the help of Miriam Roman, a Clemson extension affiliate and the Healthy Lifestyles Coordinator for South Carolina. Financial support for the cooking camps is provided by Wal-Mart through its Youth Voice, Youth Choice initiative, and the $350 covers supplies — mostly food — to run each individual program.

The small army that mobilized to deliver all these programs is to be commended. Ardern convened 4-H agents from across the state at a Healthy Lifestyles Summit meeting in Columbia in January. Each agent or coach was encouraged to bring several teen leaders from their group who did well in the Iron Chef competitions held within the agency. A high school culinary arts kitchen was the site of a day-long blitzkrieg of recipes, with the 30 teens and 10 coaches participating in making all the camp recipes and evaluating them for taste and visual appeal. The comment of one participant, Anderson County teenager Wesley Wardlaw, 15, said it all at the conclusion of the event: “I knew about healthy foods, but I didn’t know that they could taste good.” South Carolina chefs on hand at the Summit, Chad Carter and Patrick Duggan, made certain that the healthy foods tasted good, and the groundwork for the summer programs was laid.

Each 4-H coach was tasked with finding a facility to use to hold the camps, recruiting a chef to assist at certain key times and guiding the teen leaders through the planning and delivery process. Condrasky’s team of nutrition students from Clemson divided time among all the programs — during the second week in June there were four camps going on in various counties across the state — and delivered the nutrition education component, based on MyPlate. 4-H volunteers stepped up to that plate as well, some parents or grandparents of kids in the camp. Each camp blossomed in its own unique way, with campers as young as 9 to as old as 14.

The program in Summerville, a picturesque town 20 miles north of Charleston, was held in a church hall and kitchen and overseen by several home-school moms who were quite accustomed to initiating and running special programming. Their teen leaders read their scripts and engaged the campers in discussions about fast food, processed foods and healthy alternatives. Campers worked at tables around a big dining room in teams of six or eight, cooking their own healthy omelets on electric burners or using blenders for healthy smoothies.

The Jasper County camp took place at a Family Worship Center in Yemassee, with tighter quarters. But the campers still got to see and sample omelets prepared for them on the one burner available and then they all got to get their hands in the dough of the whole wheat pizzas that pleased the crowd on the last day of camp. The nutrition lessons were covered, the infused cucumber water appreciated, the guacamole mashed as a group effort.

Beaufort County leaders took a different approach and started their camp week at a farm and had the campers pick some of the vegetables that they then took back to a Montessori school kitchen and prepared for lunch. Campers all sat around a table to cut their vegetables for the chopped salad, and enjoyed a punch made with lots of fruit, some apple juice and seltzer that teen leader Sarah Jones made for them.

Marion County, up in the PeeDee region not far from the North Carolina line, conducted the camp in a large room in the extension office building, and the teen leaders kept the large group of 26 campers engaged at different tables around the room, chopping vegetables and slicing apples at separate stations. The infused water sparkled in a large dispenser at the front of the room, bright with strawberries, orange slices and pineapple. It was welcome in the 95-degree weather.

The Cook Like a Chef program developed at Penn State looks much the same as it always did in the Foods Lab, but the South Carolina 4-H Healthy Lifestyles Cooking Camp Summer 2016 versions are like a family — all different yet all the same. Condrasky, who manages to get to most camps for at least a day, is putting a lot of miles on her car this summer but her dream has come true.

Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog and can be reached at


This recipe is an optional one for the campers but is a big hit when they make it. The simple preparation relies on a really sharp knife and using a skewer to limit how far down into the apple you cut. In Marion, no skewer was available, but two toothpicks served the purpose just as well.

1 Honey crisp or Granny Smith apple

1 Tablespoon melted butter

1 Tablespoon brown sugar

 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit

2. Peel, then cut the apple in half and remove the core of the apple with a melon baller or round measuring spoon.

3. Place the apple on a cutting board with the cut side down and insert a wooden skewer or two sturdy wooden toothpicks about  1/2 inch from the bottom of the apple on the cutting board. This will keep you knife from cutting all the way through the apple and will help the apple to hold together.

3. Make vertical slices in each apple, as thinly as possible ( 1/4 inch thick, stopping when your knife feels the supporting skewer or toothpick.

4. Mix together the melted butter, brown sugar and cinnamon and baste the apple halves

5. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the apple tests tender with the tip of a knife.