BRATTLEBORO—As a CD plays Michael Jackson in the background, kids living at Morningside Shelter, their families, and Morningside staff circle around the kitchen of the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s community room.
The diners pile plates with lasagna, pizza, salad, and cookies all prepared by approximately 10 kids currently living at Morningside.
Kids participating in the cooking class held a dinner party for family and friends at the co-op on May 6.
Mariska, 4, one of the kids in the Morningside cooking class, is barely tall enough to see over the food table. She pulls on the wrist of an adult who has just filled a cup with punch.
“Do you have ice?” asks Mariska.
No. The cup is iceless and Mariska dashes to the punch bowl, adult in tow, to get ice.
A girl with a bob hair cut climbs into Rebecca Davis’ lap.
“Nevaeh made the dressing,” said Davis, clinical mental health intern with Antioch University at Morningside Shelter.
Nevaeh, 9, says she doesn’t like the dressing.
The salad dressing has a little kick, lots of garlic, and toasted sesame seed oil. Nevaeh’s parents and the other adults in the room gave it a thumbs up.
Davis organized the shelter’s first kids cooking class with Vicky Senni, the co-op’s education and outreach coordinator.
For three months, the Wednesday night class taught kids ranging in age from five to 15 how to prepare their favorite foods with a nutritious twist, said Davis.
Smoothies, healthy snacks, dips, pizza, apple turnovers, and a chocolate beet cake — the original red velvet cake, explains Senni — were some of the foods taking center stage during the class.
One night, the kids made ice cream and brought it back to Morningside, said Davis.
Davis, who once worked at the co-op, said the class exceeded her expectations.
Interest from the kids outpaced the number of students allowed in one class, so Davis and Senni rotated students from week to week so all 10 could attend.
The kids liked to “role play” as wait staff and chefs, Davis said. Their level of enthusiasm for cooking and healthy foods was wonderful.
Beyond basic cooking skills, the students also practiced building their social and emotional skills, she said.
One night, kids danced out a conflict to the Michael Jackson CD, said Davis.
Getting into the wider community also helped the kids, she said.
“It just felt like a nice way to view homelessness - to work on that stigma piece,” Davis said.
Davis’ ultimate goal for the class was to provide students with a place to see and feel that they accomplished something, and to take pride and ownership of the results.
Changing the numbers
Morningside Executive Director Joshua Davis — no relation to Rebecca — sits with his son August, 5, eating salad and pizza.
He notes that kids comprise a largest part of the homeless demographic in Vermont and nationwide.
The National Center on Family Homelessness ranked Vermont sixth overall in the country for its efforts to end childhood homelessness.
Yet, the organization also ranked the state at top for the risk to a child of becoming homeless.
In the big picture, Joshua Davis said, homelessness is more than a lack of housing.
He appreciated the co-op for providing space for the kids to practice healthy eating and interact with the wider community.
Morningside is a small property for 10 kids to run off their energy, he said.
The country’s food system is backwards, he said. The more processed a food is, the cheaper it is. This makes home cooking a challenge, especially for people on tight incomes.
Exposing kids to healthy foods fits into a “long-game” of changing the system, however, said Joshua Davis.
When children — who tend to be fickle eaters — ask for broccoli, parents will usually do the best they can to provide broccoli.
“Kids are the most powerful source of change agents out there,” he said.
That’s why Joshua Davis’ mom stopped smoking, he said. “I came home and harassed her.”
Between mouthfuls of lasagna, Shamar, 14, asks if the class can make his favorite dish next week.
Probably, said Davis and Senni.
Shamar helped prepare the pizza at the night’s meal but says, after another large forkful of lasagna, that lasagna is the best.
The pan of lasagna quickly empties with many of the diners taking seconds.
As the diners wave goodbye, some with to-go containers, Senni stacks pans in the sink.
“This for us was a clear yes,” she said of launching the new class.
She knew many of the Morningside kids through workshops at the local schools they attend.
“The kids chose what they wanted to make for the meal,” she said. “If I can help it, I like to give kids (and grown-ups) that opportunity.”
“It engages them in the kitchen, and from there we can explore at a deeper level,” Senni added.
The co-op provides funding for the class as part of its outreach and community service mission.
According to Senni, the store aims to include the entire community in accessing healthy food and solid information around nutrition. To meet that goal, the co-op provides staff time, space, and energy for children and adult programs.
“This is the heart of the co-op,” she said.
Senni teaches classes and workshops at area schools focusing on the science of how the human body processes food. She has recently started teaching more adult classes, partnering with human service organizations like HCRS and the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center.
Watching the kids in the Wednesday class, Senni said, “I could see that they felt proud.”
It almost didn’t matter what dish they made, or whether they wanted to eat it, she added. They all wanted to cook.
Kids are more likely to eat what they helped prepare, Senni commented.
Worries for future?
When she talks about the co-op funding its cooking and outreach classes, Senni becomes pensive.
Budgets are tight for the store that’s operating at a loss, said the self-described biggest co-op advocate and biggest co-op critic.
The co-op has also recently been named in a lawsuit by a national bonding company claiming that it didn’t pay all its bills to the Baybutt Construction company in the store’s multi-million expansion project. Baybutt filed for bankruptcy two years ago.
Senni worries about budget cuts.
“I feel lucky all the time but I also feel I’m crossing my fingers all the time,” she said. “It wouldn’t be the co-op without that piece of it.”
Worries aside, Senni wants to see the bad news and tight budgets turned around. The whole community — co-op staff, members, non-members, people who may not like the store — can transform the negatives to positives.
“We’re all in this together,” she said. “There are a lot of us at the co-op who care about our work and our workplace, and who deeply want to make it a better place; a welcoming community marketplace for all.”
According to Senni, approximately one out of five kids in the state are food insecure. They’re not always sure where their next meal will come from.
Add to this, the number of kids who don’t receive nutritious meals and the ratio “skyrockets,” she said.
Senni has tried to bring what she teaches in her kids’ cooking workshops full circle to include parents. The process has proved tough.
“It’s really hard to eat well,” she said.
Every day, information from doctors, marketing agencies, and advertisements barrage people, she said.
Sometimes admitting nutrition is a tough road to navigate helps people be kinder to themselves, Senni added.