Fifty children started tearing up during a special program at the Boys and Girls Club Thursday, but the adults in the room urged them not to worry — crying while chopping onions is a common occurrence.
The kids, who ranged in age from 5 to 13, were having their own cooking lesson at the Boys and Girls Club’s Columbus location on 14th Avenue. The demonstration, sponsored by Volunteer Columbus and United Way of Lowndes County, was called “Crock Out Hunger” and aimed to teach the kids cooking skills.
According to Renee Sanders, director of Volunteer Columbus, the state of Mississippi ranks fifth in the nation for childhood hunger — an issue she, the Boys and Girls Club and national organization Ecolab are aiming to combat. Cooking classes are an important way to do that, she said.
“We have so many feeding programs in the community and that’s great, but are we teaching (the youth) a skill?” Sanders said. “Or are we just putting a Band-Aid on the issue?”
Ecolab is a distributor of eco-friendly products and services to achieve sustainability goals in local communities, with a focus on food service. Volunteers from Ecolab were on-hand during the demonstration to help kids prepare ingredients.
Mark Coblentz, 14, also known as “Mark the Chef,” of Starkville led the demonstration, in which he explained to the children how to make his southwestern stew recipe using only a crock pot and a few simple ingredients.
Coblentz was a contestant on the first season of Food Network’s series “Chopped Junior” and a contestant on season five of Fox Network’s series MasterChef Junior.
“It’s nice to reach out to kids and show them the health benefits of eating healthy and how delicious it can be,” Coblentz said. “Cooking is a dying art, and it’s really important to pass on knowledge like this to future generations.”
The youth, adorned with their new aprons, got to work. Tables with volunteers at each two-person station supervised the children as they explored the array of cooking instruments and ingredients lain before them.
“You know how we cut the onion? Exactly like that,” Kamryn Givens explained to her friend Lauyana Hicks, as they cut bell peppers together.
The program allowed the children to practice a skill they can hone through the years, Sanders said.
“We hope that the skill will last them a lifetime and not be a one-time thing,” she said.
“(The children) will get so much more out of this than just stuff,” she added. “We’re gonna equip these babies, you hear me?”
Once the presentation by Coblentz came to an end, there was a taste test of a pre-made batch of Coblentz’s southwestern stew. The children were then surprised with more good news.
“Everything you used today, you get to take home,” Sanders told the audience.
The young participants received a bag complete with a homemade recipe book, utensils, a crock pot, an apron, the fresh ingredients needed to cook the stew in their own homes and the most important element: The techniques to make a meal for their families.
Parents are encouraged to get the kids involved at home, as well.
The recipe book provides kid-friendly recipes for the children to try over the summer. The children who bring back the most photos of their cooked meals will receive prizes.
“That’s our follow-up to see if we are making an impact,” Sanders said.
Donations through the community and through United Way, Boys and Girls Club and Ecolab covered the materials needed for this event.
“We strive to enrich and strengthen our communities by supporting education and charitable programs,” said Lisa Ward, marketing communications director at Ecolab.