Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Shanoaleigh Marson
As the students of Kanoe Delatori’s fifth-grade class file in to the cafeteria of Princess Nāhi‘ena‘ena Elementary School, excited chatter fills the air. One by one the twenty youngsters pass me—all with hands washed and ready for action—and when I ask them their favorite class, each responds with a huge smile and an exuberant exclamation: “This one!” The beloved class is aptly named: Kids Cook with Heart.
Today one of the teachers is Betty McDonald, owner and chef of Maui’s B3, A Beach Bunny Bakery. All eyes are on her as she asks, “Are you ready to make a healthy snack?” She picks up an apple and demonstrates how to cut it, then garnishes it with yogurt, dried fruits, and nuts. “Today you’ll be working with a flavored yogurt,” she tells the students, “but your parents can buy a plain yogurt. That’s a great way to cut your sugar intake.”
As the students break out into groups of four to make their own copy of McDonald’s creation, the program director of Kids Cook With Heart Rob Mason bellows, “Remember your knife safety!” The Cook with Heart class meets four days over the span of a month and at the very beginning the students are taught knife safety skills. As Mason shared with me earlier, “At the start I ask the students whether they help their parents in the kitchen—more specifically, if they are allowed to use a knife—and they all answer, ‘No!’ The most important thing we teach is the proper and safe way to use a knife. If a student is going into the kitchen to cook, it is the most valuable skill.”
I follow a group of girls to their workspace, where McDonald has placed cutting boards and paper plates. The girls unload a stash of raisins, cranberries, yogurt, sliced almonds, and whole apples. “I’ll go first!” states class president Gracie Dean as she wraps her tiny fingers around the knife. She steadies the apple against the cutting board and carefully slices a round disc from the crispy fruit. A silence falls amongst the foursome as she next concentrates on cutting the apple into delicate half-moon slices. When she completes her task and places the knife on the cutting board, she steps back confidently and says, “Who’s next?” Her classmate Tayana Faiva is standing before the words are out of Gracie’s mouth.
Another group of students in the room is being quietly guided by Motley Adovas, who works as a sous chef at Fond Maui restaurant in Napili. A recent graduate of UH Maui’s culinary school, Adovas went to Lahainaluna for high school and it was there that he himself participated in the Kids Cook with Heart program.
“I learned so much in the classes,” he recalls, “while broadening my knowledge about food and proper food safety. That knowledge has affected the way that I treat myself: Eating well is like getting dressed up for an occasion every day. So much of the food in the United States is processed, and so many choices come into play when people eat.”
The primary goal of Kids Cook with Heart is to teach students what makes for healthy food and good nutrition— vital knowledge in a country that has seen soaring rates of obesity and diabetes. As Mason noted when we talked, all of the recipes included in the program are approved by the American Heart Association. “In another class, we’ll demonstrate how to make a turkey stir fry,” he’d said, “and then the students will prep the dish and cook it.” Kale smoothies are on the menu too.
Kids Cook with Heart teaches students at three grade levels—fifth grade, eighth grade, and twelfth grade. By the time the high school seniors are involved, the cooking has become much more sophisticated: At that point, groups of four are given a basket of ingredients and tasked with creating a salad, an entrée, and a smoothie, all within one hour. Items in the basket typically include a protein and an assortment of produce (often including unusual items like jicama, trumpet mushrooms, or fennel).
To date, some two thousand public school children have participated. The program was founded by Sharon and Joe Saunders of Kapalua, who partnered with the American Heart Association when they recognized the need for nutritional education on Maui—often an uphill battle when even school cafeterias continue to serve pepperoni pizza sticks and corndogs with curly fries. “We felt there was a healthy diet piece missing,” says Sharon. “A large number of calories the students were eating came from foods that were processed, fatty, and low in fiber. Mirroring other heart-healthy programs for children, we introduce them to alternative snacks: fresh fruits, vegetables, good fats such as avocado and coconut, or fat-free alternatives.” Happily, Sharon notes, the group I’m with today—the fifth graders—is getting the message. “What we’ve found over the past five years,” she tells me, “is that this age group, the nine- and ten-year-olds, is the most receptive and influenced.” What drew the Saunders to become advocates? Sharon notes that she and Joe have a passion for cooking and that her family ran a restaurant in Illinois from 1920 to 1998. They have also had a forty-year dedication to education and in the past partnered with Teach for America and Teach for All.
Maui’s chefs are on board too. At least ten have volunteered their time to teach students healthy eating and culinary skills, including Kyle Kawakami, who was 2019’s ‘Aipono Chef of the Year, and Sheldon Simeon, who gained fame on Bravo’s Top Chef. Adovas is now in his second year of volunteering having taken over from his employer, Chef Jojo Vasquez, who volunteered for the program’s first three years. “It’s always an honor to be involved in the community,” says Motley, “affecting lives in a positive way.”
The program has taught students at Princess Nāhi‘ena‘ena Elementary School, Kamehameha Elementary, Lahaina Intermediate, and Lahainaluna High School and recently added a fifth school, Pomaikai Elementary School. Mason notes that the long-term goal is to grow the program to cover the entire island but he says, “It takes a village. Funding is needed.” A crowd funding campaign is underway and a recent fundraiser highlighted yet another example of the program’s success: It was attended by Zain Zakata, a 22-year old chef who recently moved from Maui to San Francisco to work at the Michelin-starred restaurant Gary Danko. Like Adovas, Zakata is a graduate of UH Maui’s culinary school; he received a full scholarship to the school from the Saunders after participating in the Cook With Heart program as a high school senior.
After visiting the other students, I circle back to the table where Bella, Olivia, Tayana, and Gracie have completed their dish: an apple sunburst circling a scoop of yogurt with a sprinkling of dried fruits and almonds. Each grabs a slice of apple and digs in. With excitement in her voice, Gracie announces, “Next week is pancakes!” Says Delatori as I leave, “The students are already asking if we can continue cooking in the classroom after the program has ended. They suggested we could tie the recipes to our math lessons.”