BROOKINGS, S.D. - Breakfast for 11-year-old Abby Christensen isn't coming from a cold cereal box this morning. Instead, she cracks a few eggs into dish, beats them and pours the mixture into a skillet. Once the eggs are the right consistency, she adds ham, folds the edges over the filling and sprinkles the omelet with cheese.
"It feels good being able to cook on my own because I can make whatever I want, like this omelet or French toast - sometimes I even make a meal for my family," explains the Bennett County sixth grader.
Although she has played the role of sous chef to her mom, Amy, since she was a toddler, Christensen's confidence in cooking for herself is due in large part to Kids in the Kitchen.
Kids in the Kitchen is a weekly, school-year program held in the Home Economics kitchen of Bennett County High School. When school lets out at 4 p.m., Abby and about 15 to 20 of her peers gather to prepare a meal together under the guidance of 4-H volunteers, like her mom, Amy and Tauna Ireland.
The purpose of the weekly 4-H event is to empower youth, like Abby, with the skills necessary to prepare meals, from scratch, for themselves at home, explains Ireland.
"If you have food in your home, but don't know what to do with it, it doesn't do you any good," says Ireland, who came up with the idea for Kids in the Kitchen after witnessing hungry youth attending an afterschool program at her church just for the meal. "If kids need food, I feel like that is a basic need. If people aren't fed, you can't feed their spirit; so, I thought, why not teach them how to cook so they can feed themselves."
Kids are welcome to make messes in this kitchen
It was fall 2015 when Ireland came up with the idea. She was grieving the recent loss of her mom, Ria Hatch, who she says inspired her to make the idea a reality. "She was always looking out for the 'least of these.' If she knew someone was hungry, she would have fed them.'"
Ireland adds that her mom was instrumental in teaching her to cook. "She encouraged us to cook. She let us make messes and experiment," says Ireland, who has 11 siblings. "I remember, she let me make divinity as a 10-year-old."
By September 2016, Ireland was leading the first Kids in the Kitchen program. She began by promoting the program to fourth and fifth graders, selecting some kid-friendly recipes and, with funds she and her husband, Brent, set aside from their monthly budget, purchasing equipment and ingredients.
At first, the group met in her church's kitchen, but soon outgrew the space. She reached out to the Bennett County Principal, Nick Redden, who quickly volunteered the school's Home Economics kitchen.
Entirely hands-on, during Kids in the Kitchen, youth work together and do all the food preparation - following the recipe, measuring, cutting, stirring, sautéing, clean up - everything.
Once the meal is prepared, they sit down and enjoy it together. The youth are sent home with the recipe.
"At first, people were nervous that we let the kids use knives, but we teach them the safe way to cut using the claw and the saw method," Ireland says. "At 10 or 11, they are eager to learn and they are capable of learning pretty complicated things."
To date, the group, which averages 15 youth each week, have prepared more than 115 recipes. Although some recipes are elaborate, like chocolate crepes and homemade pasta noodles, Ireland and Amy, who is a weekly volunteer, look for recipes that include ingredients youth have at home.
"We try to keep it simple, but delicious. We want to show them that you don't have to go to a restaurant to eat fettuccini Alfredo or fish tacos," Amy explains. "Many of our kids' families receive commodities, so we look for creative ways to prepare what they receive."
According to feedback, the program is working.
"I run into parents or grandparents who tell me, their kids are cooking. One grandma told me that her granddaughter made our meatball recipe for the entire family for a holiday meal. Another mom, I ran into at the grocery store with her daughter, told me, 'she is the one taking cooking classes so she is the one who cooks.' The kids are receiving positive feedback from their families,'" Ireland says.
Today, most of the ingredient funds come from small grants Ireland has applied for or are donated by community members. She worked with Mary Kay Sell, SDSU Extension 4-H Program Assistant - Bennett County, to run Kids in the Kitchen as a 4-H event hosted by Tip Top 4-H Club. All funds go through the club account.
"Kids learn by doing," Sell says. "This program addresses a very real issue of kids going hungry, not because there isn't anything in the home to eat, but because they do not know how to prepare the food that is available."
Along with Amy, each week about three to five adults volunteers show up to help out.
"People are willing to donate their time if their time isn't wasted," Ireland says.
Amy would agree. "We have an awesome group of kids who are eager to learn. They are totally hands-on in the kitchen. They don't just stand there and wait for us to tell them what to do, they come in and begin going to the cupboards for supplies and measuring out ingredients," she says.
To learn more about Kids in the Kitchen, contact Ireland by email.
More about South Dakota 4-H
SDSU Extension's 4-H Youth Development Program is a partnership of federal (USDA), state (Land Grant University), and county resources through youth outreach activities of SDSU Extension. Youth learn and experience Leadership, Health and Wellness, Science and Ag-Vocacy through a network of professional staff and volunteers reaching more than 9,000 enrolled members with yearly programming efforts to an additional 35,000 youth participants.
To learn more, contact your local SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisor.