Cooking up good deeds

By Seth Biedrzycki

Research has shown that a significant portion of Dubuque’s youth struggles with obesity, which can largely be attributed to diets that are calorie-dense but not nutritionally dense. Positive outcomes occur when educational programs in nutritional knowledge are implemented. With this in mind, an honors group at Loras began to create Food Scholars programs to educate the youth of Dubuque about healthy and nutritious food options along with knowledge about where food comes from. The group’s members – Seth Biedrzycki, Erin Sellberg, Alexis Alt, Lily Horst, and Miles McDonnell – partnered with Convivium Urban Farmstead, as this dynamic non-profit has worked tirelessly to make healthy food accessible to all people and to offer cooking classes for kids and adults alike.

Convivium Urban Farmstead is an urban farm located in Dubuque that seeks to build a sense of kinship and solidarity around the growth and cultivation of food. Convivium’s goal is to share its knowledge with the people around them and create a sense of unity in Dubuque’s North End neighborhood. In order to fulfill its goals, the Convivium has opened a coffee shop and restaurant, built community gardens both on-site and around the neighborhood, offered cooking classes to people of all ages, and recently partnered with a local Dubuque resident to provide a prepared meal service for the community.

When the honors group initially partnered with Convivium Urban Farmstead during its sophomore year, the organization had yet to hold a cooking class. When the group asked Leslie Shalabi, the co-owner, what goals she had in mind, she mentioned that providing cooking classes for children and teenagers in the Dubuque area was one of her top priorities. She had already been working to implement such a program, so the honors students were able to assist her in this effort almost immediately. The honors group worked together with Convivium management throughout their sophomore year, spending the majority of its time meeting with Shalabi and planning the details of the first program. They knew what type of program they wanted to bring to the community and that they wanted it to be free to attend, but it took some initial logistical efforts to start on the path to fulfilling that goal. Discussions with Convivium management determined that the first class would require a fee to attend. However, moving forward, the goal would be to apply for enough grant money to cover the costs of the cooking classes, so that future classes would be free and more inclusive to students of all backgrounds in Dubuque. In cooperation with Shalabi, the group designed a plan of action and prepared for a quick turnaround on its ideas following summer break.

In the fall of their junior year, Convivium and the honors group hosted their first Food Scholars Program for middle school students. Eleven kids from local middle schools attended the class, and the honors group assisted the Convivium team in preparing, running, and cleaning up after each of the six sessions. The initial curriculum brainstorming involved showing students the various stages of growing a certain vegetable or fruit during each session, but this quickly evolved. The inaugural program worked with what they called “Food Geography,” a curriculum centered on having the students try foods and spices from around the world. This worked to broaden the kids’ perception of different types of food as well as different cultures in a tangible, easy to grasp way. During the last session, the participants were able to invite their families to the dinner they cooked themselves. In addition, each of the kids were provided a recipe book of all the meals and snacks they had made throughout the sessions. The Convivium and the honors group members received great feedback from the kids, which encouraged the Convivium to host more classes and sessions this past summer. In addition to helping out at the initial Food Scholars class, this honors group also applied for the Honors grant and used that money to pay for kid-friendly supplies that the Convivium staff had kids use this summer. This allowed the instructors to spend more time instructing and less time worrying about the children’s safety.

Now, entering its senior year, this honors group has a few final goals. After meeting with Dr. VanLaningham and their mentors, the students determined that finding a successor to facilitate the cooking classes at Convivium and assist its staff is imperative. Consequently, the group is currently searching for an individual or group at Loras that would like to volunteer and help keep this project going. In addition, the group is excited to help facilitate more sessions this winter and next spring. As they see it, the best way to instill a respect and understanding of natural, nutritious foods is to offer inspiring lessons to the youth of the community. These programs serve to make the most of the time where children’s minds are most shapeable, ultimately working to nurture a more well-rounded generation.

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