How do you get kids to eat their vegetables? If you’re Amber Stott, you hold a cook-off, pitting two tacos—one filled with broccoli, the other with cactus—against each other and have kids vote for their favorite. (Spoiler alert: They went for the broccoli.) As founder and “chief food genius” at Sacramento’s Food Literacy Center, Stott uses crafty tricks like this to teach schoolkids about the joys of cooking and eating healthfully. Now she’s about to realize a longtime dream with the opening of a $4.3 million facility where she and her staff can educate a new generation of Sacramento schoolchildren.
The handsome, 4,500-square-foot modern building is a definite step up from the center’s previous headquarters in an old Curtis Park bungalow. Located off lower Broadway behind The Mill housing development, it features an enormous culinary classroom where students from nearby Leataata Floyd Elementary School can learn to cook using state-of-the-art induction burners, convection ovens, refrigerators and sinks. There’s also a commercial kitchen where staffers can prep ingredients for transport to schools for off-site lessons. Eventually, there will also be a 1-acre garden behind the building where kids can grow their own produce.
Sacramento City Unified School District paid for the construction of the new facility and owns the land on which it sits. The nonprofit Food Literacy Center doesn’t pay a penny in rent but provides its programs free of charge to the district’s Title 1 elementary schools—that is, schools with students from low-income families. Over the past decade, according to Stott, the center has supplied the district with services worth more than $3.5 million. The curriculum demystifies fresh vegetables by showing kids how to select, prepare and eat them. Children learn to cook things like oatmeal with fresh fruit, spaghetti marinara and veggie tostadas. Cultural diversity is a big factor: When one student asked to make noodle soup, the staff came up with a recipe for Vietnamese pho.
There are other school cooking programs throughout the state, including Alice Waters’ famed Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. But Stott’s public-private partnership with an entire school district is the only one of its kind in California. She hopes it can serve as a model for other school districts.
Why teach kids to cook at school? Aren’t there more important lessons to learn? Absolutely not, says Stott. “Kids don’t learn about this stuff anymore,” she explains. “All that stuff from our grandmothers never got passed down.”