Persimmon, arugula and pomegranate salad; carrot kari; gluten-free almond pear torte. These dishes are not from the newest farm-to-table restaurant on Valencia Street. It’s seventh period at Mission High, and chef Michelle Waltman is teaching teenagers how to prepare healthy food in the school’s cafeteria.
The mission of the Culinary Leadership course is deceptively simple: increase young people’s consumption of fresh food. But while changing teenage consumption patterns is important, with rising rates of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes, it is anything but easy.
“They tell me they get some of their meals from vending machines,” Waltman says, shaking her head. “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are a popular choice.”
Dressed in crisp chef whites and stylish black-framed glasses, Waltman, or Chef M, as the students call her, majored in nutrition and biochemistry at the University of North Carolina before graduating from the Natural Gourmet School in New York City. She started the semester at Mission High by asking students how they define nutrition. Responses varied from “counting calories” to “eating your veggies.” But to Waltman and Nextcourse, a project of the Trust for Conservation Innovation that funds the class, eating healthily goes deeper.
“I tell them it means achieving a higher quality of life,” Waltman says. Consuming balanced meals, she argues, can help them be better varsity athletes, get better grades and feel better about themselves.
The 17 students enrolled in the for-credit leadership class mirror the diversity of Mission High. In the 2010-2011 school year, 44.82 percent of Mission High students were English learners. Waltman’s students’ first languages include Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tigriña. Currently, 70 percent of the school’s students receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Mission High was identified last year as one of the state’s lowest-performing schools, but Waltman does not oversimplify the biochemistry behind nutrition. Blood sugar graphs display the impacts of different foods, and students know from experience the dramatic dip that occurs after the sugar high of eating refined foods.
“The biggest challenge is getting them to cook,” she says. “If they cook it, they are more likely to eat it.” Students’ ownership of the recipes helps. That and being able to make mistakes.
One teen hesitated to participate at the beginning of the year. “I remember asking him, what would make you be more engaged, have fun?” Waltman says. They sat down together one afternoon after class and hashed it out. Waltman explained that cooking also meant sometimes burning a dish or putting in too much salt.
“I want to show them that cooking can be fun and approachable,” she says. “And not to be intimidated.” It worked — the once-reticent student started cooking the following week.
On a Friday afternoon, Waltman announces the game plan to 15 teens as she delicately unwraps bundles of fresh greens from paper towels. Dominic, a 10th-grader, picked the arugula and broccoli rabe from the school’s own small garden outside the cafeteria doors. Susie White, executive director of Nextcourse, said that students’ awareness of and appreciation for green vegetables, including asparagus, peas, broccoli and brussels sprouts, has been one of the biggest changes over the year.
Waltman points to the bunches of carrots nearby. “What else would be similar to carrots?” Sweet potatoes, one student suggests. “What else?” Squash, another offers. “Good!” It’s all part of her strategy to get students to use familiar preparation methods with different seasonal ingredients.
Along the prep counter, a group starts to prepare a popular recipe for potato and parsnip pancakes. They giggle as the cloth bundle of shredded vegetables is twisted and wrung out to drain excess liquid. Down the counter, second-year participant Allen eyes the ingredient list for Indian-style carrots. He describes the dish as “good but kind of weird.” He waves to the pile of round, pungent mustard seeds, explaining that they pop when you eat them. Meanwhile, at the salad station, a bright fuchsia-colored dressing is interspersed with glowing slices of persimmon and crimson pomegranate jewels, a punchy combination that would make Alice Waters proud.
Nearby, 17-year-old Makda methodically follows the gluten-free pear tart recipe, delicately arranging halved pears in a star formation on top of the pie. The student baker lights up when talking about college. She applied early to Stanford, and is thinking about going into medicine or science. At home, she cooks almost every day, and explains that Eritrean food is healthy. “That’s why I’m skinny,” she says.
Each class uses about $75 dollars’ worth of ingredients to feed 17 people, costing approximately $4.41 per person for food. Nextcourse helps mitigate the price of high-quality ingredients by sourcing produce at farmers markets, using a seasonal approach, and purchasing bulk ingredients.
In contrast, according to Heidi Anderson, San Francisco Unified School District’s public relations coordinator, the district’s Student Nutrition Services (SNS) pays $1.65 for each high school meal served in the cafeteria. Waltman concedes that the perceived cost of healthy or homemade food is a major hurdle for students. “If they had all the money in the world, they would probably choose to cook,” she says.
But teaching healthy cooking has an impact beyond the classroom. Allen moved to the United States from China five years ago. One day he explained to his parents that it would be healthier if they switched from white rice to brown rice. “At first my dad didn’t believe me,” Allen says. But then his mother did a blood sugar test and now they eat brown rice regularly.
Waltman takes a moment to show me a recent text message from a student. Pictured is a bottle of vitamin-water product and a larabar (a raw, gluten-free, vegan brand of energy bar). Underneath reads: “just walked in walgreens n grabbed these automatically …hmmmm.”
The text signals an important moment for Waltman. “The shift has to come from them and their perspective,” she concludes.