Cooking … with a lot of heart

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

American Heart Association’s Kids Cook with Heart program teaches 5th-, 7th- and 11th-graders in Lahaina-area public schools the importance of nutrition through hands-on cooking classes. Chef Riko Bartolome is shown working with King Kamehameha III students. Photos courtesy of the American Heart Association

It’s 9:14 on an overcast Wednesday morning and Jennifer Middleton’s 5th-grade class is gathered outside of the King Kamehameha III Elementary School cafeteria. A minute later, the students file inside, laughing and chatting animatedly.

There’s a palpable surge of excitement when they spot the three men in white chef’s jackets standing in the middle of the room — and the colorful mixing bowls and cutting boards laid out on the tables beside them.

By 10:15, the air is filled with the tantalizing scents of fresh-squeezed lime and chopped cilantro. Within an hour, the trio of chefs — Riko Bartolome, Rob Mason and Kaipo Nagata — has taught the 5th-graders how to make salsa and guacamole from scratch. After a round of high-fives (and a last-minute dip of a corn chip), the students head off to their next class.

Since 2015, Mason, Bartolome and Nagata have given their time and talent to the American Heart Association’s Kids Cook with Heart program in West Maui. The program pairs local chefs with Lahaina-area schools to teach 5th-, 7th- and 11th-graders how to prepare heart-healthy meals for themselves and their families. Those chefs include Bartolome (Asia-Vous, LLC); Mason (RJ Gourmet Maui); Nagata (Sansei Kapalua); Craig Erickson (Ka’anapali Beach Club); Elizabeth (Betty) McDonald (B3 A Beach Bunny Bakery); Ryan Luckey (Leilani’s on the Beach); Motley Adovas (Plantation House); and Paris Nabavi (Pizza Paradiso Mediterranean Grill), who partnered with the American Heart Association four years ago to bring the Kids Cook with Heart program to West Maui.

Throughout the academic year, the volunteer chef instructors visit their respective schools and show students how to make tasty and nutritious meals, everything from whole-wheat pancakes to kale smoothies to strawberry spinach salads. It’s hard to tell who’s having the most fun — the adults or the kids — but it’s clear the chefs have achieved rock-star status in the eyes of their students. “I’ll be shopping at Safeway or in line at the movie theater and a kid will run up to me and say, ‘Hi, Chef Rob!’ “ said Mason, who has served as the program’s coordinator since its inception. “It feels good to know we are making a difference in their lives.”

Riko Bartolome

They may not realize it now, but these students are learning more than proper knife skills or how to flip a perfect pancake. Studies show that getting kids involved in the kitchen will positively influence their food preferences and impact their short- and long-term health. According to the American Heart Association, childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past three decades and is now the No. 1 health concern among parents in the U.S., surpassing drug abuse and smoking. Childhood obesity puts youth at risk for premature heart disease; it causes a range of health problems that previously weren’t seen until adulthood, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels. Many kids are inundated with processed foods and sugary drinks, so encouraging them to adopt healthy eating habits can be an uphill battle — but it’s not impossible.

The chefs say they’ve seen students initially regard kale and spinach leaves with suspicion — and on one occasion, try an apple for the first time. Over the past four years, they’ve witnessed their share of transformative, I-never-thought-I’d-ever-like-this moments. The program changes the way kids think about food, Mason said, “And it gives them the tools they need to make healthy choices.”

The hands-on lessons incorporate as many locally grown ingredients as possible and are tailored to each grade level. For instance, at Lahainaluna High School, Bartolome has taught 11th-graders nutritious recipes they could easily whip up after school or later on in a college dorm room. Apart from providing students with basic cooking skills and promoting (and in some cases, demystifying) healthy food, the program has also inspired budding chefs; Bartolome says some of the high school participants have gone on to pursue careers in culinary arts.

Last year, the program began supplying students with take-home kits filled with the ingredients they need to make one of the classroom-prepared meals at home. Maui’s Kids Cook with Heart development manager Eva Bondar says parents often send her photographs of their children happily working in the kitchen — and proudly posing with the end product. “We get a lot of thank-yous,” she said. “Many of the parents say the kids have motivated them to eat healthier, too.”

Now that’s what you call a win-win.

Rob Mason

The program currently serves schools only in the Lahaina area, but Bondar says she hopes to secure funding to expand it to more schools in other areas of Maui in the near future. The program is grant-funded by the Saunders Family Foundation, Makana Aloha Foundation, Nabavi Legacy Foundation and other private donors.

For more information about the American Heart Association’s Kids Cook with Heart program or to inquire about donor opportunities, contact Bondar at 212-4861 or eva.bondar@heart.org or visit the crowdfunding website at www.Heart.org/MauiKids.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

Kaipo Nagata

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