If the phrase “cooking from a box” evokes visions of gluey mac and cheese, think again. This spring, foodservice provider Chartwells K12 is unboxing a mobile teaching kitchen that unfolds from a shipping container to set the stage for lessons in healthy cooking.
Nicknamed Elly (the initials of the company philosophy, “eat, learn, love,” plus “y”), the mobile teaching kitchen is the result of a year of collaboration between Chartwells K12 chefs and dietitians. The project was inspired by the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative, a network of organizations that use teaching kitchens to improve public health, launched in 2016 by the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Adding a permanent teaching kitchen bolsters Chartwells K12’s mission to teach kids healthy behaviors, says Margie Saidel, registered dietitian and vice president of nutrition and sustainability for Chartwells K12. “We’re not just here to provide food to kids [that] happens to be healthy,” Saidel says. “Everybody agrees that it’s a good idea to teach kids how to cook. That has been done traditionally in a culinary program, or you’re learning it at home. Not so many kids are learning it from home, [and] we need to educate everybody.”
Hatching a plan
What form the teaching kitchen would take was the first order of business. “Part of our discussion was, we could have this be a mobile teaching kitchen—or should we try to make permanent display kitchen spaces in schools?” Saidel says. Ultimately, the mobile idea won out, and because parent company Compass Group has previously converted shipping containers into pop-up restaurants, using one was a natural fit. “It’s definitely sustainable to use something that already exists,” Saidel says. “It’s really just an empty shell that can be made into anything.” While food trucks are already popular in noncommercial dining, they are much smaller and don’t allow for the same open-concept format of a shipping container.
Elly’s demos will target elementary and middle schools. “With middle school students, sometimes they are at the age when they’re at home without a parent or taking care of their sibling, and we want them to have a firm understanding of how to make snacks or a simple meal for their family,” Saidel says. “At upper elementary, you’re getting acquainted with healthy foods and ingredients, and [students are] at their most impressionable. Even at lower elementary, you can do more of an assembly-type recipe, and they’re the ones who are going to be excited to tell their parents that they worked with that food.”
In fall 2016, Chartwells K12 partnered with Pilot Light—a chef-driven nonprofit dedicated to helping kids make healthier choices—to bring educational programs that combine Common Core curriculum with food education into its school classrooms. The mobile teaching kitchen, which travels on a trailer, will expand on this partnership by pairing classroom lessons with lunch recipes that will be taught in hands-on demonstrations, says Joyce Sun, teaching kitchen manager for Chartwells K12.
As of press time, the kitchen was set to launch in mid-May, and Chartwells K12 was still building out the tour schedule, with the intention of visiting 15 school districts in 2017, Saidel says. “We are considering factors like weather and timing as well as district requests and opportunities to enhance our partners’ mission and goals,” Sun says. As for staffing, “A mix of Chartwells K12’s chefs and dietitians will lead the hands-on cooking and teaching once Elly hits the road,” she says.
Along with student education, it’s possible Elly could be used for expanded programs in the future for parents or young adults. “With high school, it would be a great idea to do this with seniors to get them ready to go to college,” Saidel says. “There’s no end to the possibilities.”