These Kids Don’t Want to Be Guy Fieri, They Want to Fix Their Food System

In South Dallas, kids aren’t enrolling in culinary arts classes because of the Food Network—they want to improve their neighborhood.

Juniors and seniors at Lincoln High School in South Dallas took an active role in helping to plan the school's new Culinary Arts Academy, which will feature a market garden, a demonstration kitchen, and a restaurant open to the public. (Photo provided by: Stacy Cherones, Get Healthy Dallas)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

What’s behind the explosion of interest in food and the culinary arts among Dallas’ youth?

Well, if you believe the Jan. 18 article in the Dallas Morning News spotlighting the demand for culinary education classes in and around Dallas, it’s “the Food Network effect”: The glut of TV cooking shows leads to a greater interest in cooking-related careers.

While that may be a true motive for the culinary students from the wealthy suburb of Plano who were profiled in the piece, students in many of Dallas’ poorer zip codes have more pressing reasons to learn about food and cooking, says Stacy Cherones, executive director of the advocacy group Get Healthy Dallas. In her research and work with students at Dallas’ Lincoln High School, for instance, she has seen that kids are drawn to cooking because they want to invest more in their neighborhood’s food system and culture.

“With our students, it’s less of a Food Network thing. It’s more of a community engagement thing,” says Cherones, who’s helping to spearhead the introduction of a holistic culinary arts academy to the South Dallas school, which is located in one of the city’s largest food deserts. “That’s something I really started to see last year, juniors turning to seniors. That transition of students saying, wait, this is something I want to do here, and it’s something I want to use to change my neighborhood.”

Cherones says she felt the article about high school food programs singled out wealthier, more food-secure communities, and left out places like Lincoln High School, which is poised to become a hub of fresh, local food for the neighborhood. As Get Healthy Dallas raises funds for Lincoln’s $1.6 million culinary arts academy, students are helping to plan the details of the innovative project. In an op-ed response to the Dallas Morning News article about culinary programs, Cherones wrote:

“…the program at Lincoln is unique in its multiple emphases on entrepreneurship, nutrition and agriculture, alongside its culinary arts classes. Once the program is fully functional, it will include a market garden, a demonstration kitchen and a restaurant that will be open to the public. The students will staff and run the restaurant and the garden. Through that process, they will learn about the full path that food travels on its journey from farm to fork.”

Freshman Lashasta Smith, 15, says last semester’s focus on nutrition resulted in some important changes in her diet.

“I was surprised we take in so much carbs and sugars,” she says. “I’ve changed my sugar and eating habits. I’m eating more fruit and vegetables. I didn’t really like vegetables. And I used to put a lot of sugar on my Cheerios.”

Despite Smith’s progress in certain areas, other parts of her story reveal a nutritional reality that many low-income families face—especially those living in South Dallas. She says she “doesn’t really go into the cafeteria” at school—either picking up a snack, “like a Lunchables,” or eating nothing at all. She says her mom buys the family’s groceries at the Walmart several neighborhoods over—the closest supermarket to her home.

“Lincoln is in the worst food desert in Dallas,” Cherones adds. “[Supermarkets] are all outside of a one-mile radius. There’s not one neighborhood grocery store—those are further afield.”

Consequently, breakfast for many of Lincoln’s students consists of chips and soda from the convenience store just down the street.

But students are hopeful that the school’s new food curriculum can begin to transform the “food ways,” as Cherones calls them, of one of Dallas’ most forgotten neighborhoods—a neighborhood that leads the city in deaths from diet-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. And Cherones is hearing from young people who want to turn that around, including two Lincoln seniors who hope to become chefs and open restaurants across from the school.

Though he’s just 14, freshman Cameron Nickerson credits his culinary arts instructor, Sara Hosford, with fueling his dream of becoming a chef. But he also sees the program’s deeper importance for his community.

“[Ms. Hosford] takes time out to give me one-on-one tutoring about how cooking can benefit my life,” Nickerson says. “If I teach others, we can probably start this new food revolution. Instead of buying Debbie cakes and hot chips, we could start buying more vegetables, with more vitamin D. Some people have obesity, but they don’t want to take the risk of dropping the weight. So we can make an easier more beneficial way to lose the weight.”

Besides creating culinary programs in schools, what else can be done to create better food practices in unhealthy neighborhoods?

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