LEBANON — Paige Needham already loves to cook, especially baking with her grandmother. But the CHEF program at Seven Oak Middle School still taught her a couple of new tricks.
"What surprised me is the spaghetti sauce. We put carrots in it," the sixth-grader exclaimed, eyes wide. "That surprised me a lot. And my family."
And right there are two indications the CHEF program is doing exactly what it's supposed to, according to Krystal Boyechko, who directs the project through Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital. It's getting kids to eat more vegetables as part of practicing new healthy habits — and it's getting them to share those habits with their families.
CHEF, which stands for Culinary Health Education and Fitness, is an expansion of CATCH, which stands for Coordinated Approach To Child Health.
CATCH came from a 2012 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its purpose is to combat childhood obesity by providing opportunities for healthy eating and physical exercise at the elementary level.
CHEF, too, is funded through a three-year federal grant, for $884,613, covering Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties. It expands on CATCH by extending its mission to middle school students and their families and by adding free cooking classes for both.
The Seven Oak classes, which just wrapped up Thursday, were the second five-class series of CHEF cooking classes offered in Lebanon.
Next comes classes in February for students through Sweet Home's Boys & Girls Club and for families through Sweet Home Family Medicine. In May, classes will move back to Lebanon for middle-schoolers at Lacomb School, Hamilton Creek School and the Boys & Girls Club. Middle-school students and their families from the specific areas will be invited to sign up.
At Seven Oak, about a dozen middle-schoolers met for two hours each week to cook, sample and take home their creations.
Recipes included pasta with garden marinara sauce, stir fry and steamed rice, veggie tostadas, carrot pancakes with berry syrup, veggie egg scramble, and — on this particular Thursday — grilled flatbread calzones. The Linus Pauling Institute Healthy Youth Program, a program partner, provided the materials.
Students had cooking help from parent volunteers and adult supervisors representing Samaritan, the COMP-NW medical school and Linn County Master Gardeners Planting Seeds of Change programs. They learned a few things along the way, such as how to tuck their fingers in while cutting up vegetables, and how to keep their materials sanitized.
"Hey guys, those are on nonsterile surfaces. You're going to have to throw those away," volunteer Tanner Libsack of COMP-NW warned students pounding out their flatbreads on a cafeteria table. "That was a bad move."
But none of the students needed any assistance to gobble down the results of their labors.
"I put cheese, sauce, more cheese," Paige said as she sampled her calzone.
"I definitely did like the stir fry," said Kyler Boyce, 13.
Leah Lehr, 13, said she's enjoyed all of the offerings. "I might change things up, but there are definitely some things I might make again."
Some of the students have had previous cooking experiences, but some were learning their way around the kitchen for the first time. Most said they figured, either way, they had nothing to lose.
"I like to cook, and it was free, and why not?" Leah said.
"My mom said it's a good way to learn to cook," said Mystique Terwilliger, 12, adding that she particularly enjoyed the fruit salad they made the first week.
The classes are good at teaching the basics, Libsack, of COMP-NW, agreed. But they're also good at helping change mindsets.
"They don't realize how fun it is until they do it," he said.
Like the carrots in the spaghetti sauce, adding healthy habits to a lifestyle is a fun way to sneak in something that will pay off in the future, said Diane Giese, Samaritan Health Services coordinator for the Linn and Benton counties CHEF program.
"In the long run," she said, "you'll have a healthier body."