By Chandra Sparks Splond

Photos contributed

Teaching kids to cook in school is no longer a thing of the past thanks to a new initiative at Green Valley Elementary School. The Green Valley Teaching Kitchen Program, which was launched last year, is the brainchild of Green Valley STEAM teacher Melissa Willcox.

The kitchen, which is housed in one of the school’s classrooms, offers students the opportunity to learn not only cooking skills, but it also helps educators reinforce lessons they’re teaching students in the classroom.

“I had been kicking around the idea of cooking with our students for a while,” Willcox says. “The Hoover City School Foundation grant theme for the 2021–22 school year was Back to Basics, so I thought this was the perfect time to move toward getting a kitchen at Green Valley. I thought it was a great idea to teach our students how to cook because it provides the opportunity to teach nutrition education like making healthy choices and meal planning, while incorporating math and science.”

As a result of the grant, as well as the support of Green Valley’s administration and parent teacher organization, Willcox was able to open and stock the kitchen.

“I wrote a grant last year and received funding from the Hoover City Schools Foundation for an oven range, refrigerator, pots and pans, cooking utensils, bakeware, food etc. My principal was able to use money from our school budget and add a microwave oven, dishwasher, sink, cabinets and countertop. All teachers at Green Valley are able to use the teaching kitchen with their classes. It is located in a classroom in a central location at our school, and it is open to use throughout the school day,” Willcox says. “I am the STEAM teacher at Green Valley, so I pull classes into the kitchen around my schedule and around their schedule. Purchasing food can be expensive, so I have to factor in costs when I plan lessons. The Green Valley Elementary PTO recently gave me a $500 grant towards food in the kitchen, so that is a big help.”

Once they enter the kitchen, Green Valley students are introduced to a culinary world many have never experienced. In addition to getting hands-on learning and lots of eating, they are able to see how to incorporate the skills they’ve learned into everyday life.

“Students can expect to collaborate with their table mates and enjoy preparing food and eating together. Students can also expect that I will tie in mathematics and science like counting, weighing, fractions, measuring, addition and subtraction, measuring, tracking time, chemical and physical changes and nutrition,” Willcox says.

Those skills often open up new opportunities for them and empower them to try out their new skills.

“I think the kitchen has been beneficial to our students because it provides new experiences for them,” says Staley McIlwain, a first-grade teacher at Green Valley. “Their parents may not cook a lot at home, so it’s something they haven’t gotten to be hands-on with. If they do cook a lot at home, they are able to share that experience with their classmates and teachers.”

Willcox believes the lessons also get students excited about not only cooking, but also what they are learning.

“I made pita pizzas with third, fourth and fifth grade students, and we talked about kitchen safety and fractions during this lesson. I had a few students say they were going to go to the store after school and make pita pizzas for their family, which I thought was awesome. The kids really enjoyed making and eating the pizzas, and it was a nice change to their daily routine,” she says.

The teachers have used the teaching kitchen in out-of-the-box ways and to tie in to established events like Green Valley’s multicultural week, in which students learn about Latin America and get to sample foods like empanadas and Guatemalan rice.

“I used the kitchen this past February with my Girls Engaged in Math and Science Club (GEMS),”McIlwain says. “They were a group of first and second-grade girls who met for six weeks after school to create a project to present at the Hoover City Schools GEMS Expo. Their first idea was to make cotton candy without a machine. When we were not successful with that, they decided on making rock candy. It was great to have the kitchen because we were able to go down there and make our rock candy. It was something they had never made before, and none of the girls had been in the STEAM kitchen yet, so it was fun to see it through their eyes because they were amazed first at us having a kitchen in school to use and then seeing the rock candy coming together.”

Now that the kitchen is up and running, Willcox sees nothing but good food and wonderful things ahead, and can’t help but to be thankful for the opportunities it has already provided.

“I would like to thank the Hoover City Schools Foundation for funding the grant to start the Green Valley Kitchen. It is such an amazing opportunity for our students and so good for their social and emotional development,” she says.