Cooking and nutrition programs for male youth: A recipe for success
Written by: Julia Fursova, Guys Can Cook Project Coordinator, The Four Villages Community Health Centre
In 2013, a Toronto-based group of registered dietitians and health promoters who are passionate about healthy food, cooking, health education and community, envisioned a cooking and nutrition program for boys ages 13 to 18. The project proposal had been spearheaded by the Nutrition Affiliate of the West End Urban Health Alliance after a successful pilot program implemented at The Four Villages Community Health Centre. In January 2014, funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation was received for the Guys Can Cook! project - a three-year initiative across seven community health centres in west Toronto.
The Guys Can Cook! (GCC) project was planned as a community-based afterschool program for male youth from priority neighborhoods in response to the multiple challenges they experience in relation to food security, nutrition, employment and a sense of belonging in the community. GCC offers participants a skill-building program in a peer-supported, interactive environment.
The project is a product of interdisciplinary collaboration between seven community health centres, Toronto Public Health, and Toronto Employment and Social Services. As an interdisciplinary program, Guys Can Cook! brings together registered dietitians, chef instructors, health promoters and community youth workers. Chef instructors lead main cooking activities introducing guys to the art of slicing, chopping, pivoting, sautéing, braising and other secrets of the trade. Registered dietitians impart important information about nutrition but they don’t simply serve dry theory and facts. Dry theory turns into mouth-watering snacks, and facts take an interesting turn during interactive nutrition games developed exclusively for the Guys Can Cook! program. Contests and competitions also add some spice to nutrition education. To keep all this energy flowing into positive direction requires special skills and this is why the involvement of the youth workers and/or health promoters is absolutely vital for the program. To further support youth engagement, program graduates are invited to join as peer leaders in following years. They provide important mentoring support and bring in an important “bro factor”.
In 2016, the Guys Can Cook! project is in its third and final year of delivery. The three years of partnership and collaboration between the interdisciplinary team resulted in a complex and flavourful dish. During these exciting years, there was opportunity for ongoing dialogue with program participants and partners to inform program development and refine the program model. Continuous reflection on challenges and successes along with feedback from program participants and partners, allowed the project team to perfect the recipe for success for implementing a cooking and nutrition program for male youth.
Key learnings during the journey:
Youth engagement is vital at the every step of program planning and implementation. Don’t just ask program participants what they liked and didn’t at the end of the program, but find ways to involve youth in program planning, outreach, program preparation, activities development, testing of program materials and final evaluation. This can be done through opening various communication channels, including informal and semi-formal discussions, anonymous feedback cards, surveys, regular check in sessions and conversations with peer leaders and volunteers.
Setting clear boundaries from the start is of utmost importance in processes involving multiple partners. Just like in a recipe involving many ingredients where it is important to have clear instructions for the amount of each ingredient and cooking times, the “program recipe” involving multiple partners also needs clear parameters defining each program component, the program scope, and partners’ roles and responsibilities.
Clarifying expectations when maintaining dialogue with program participants and partners lowers risk for possible disappointments and misunderstandings. It is particularly relevant during and after program evaluation when partners and participants’ input is solicited to inform program development. Acknowledge the value of all suggestions but also acknowledge the limits in relation to the project scope. Explain what suggestions are realistic and what suggestions are outside the program scope or organization’s capacity. Use such conversations as teachable moments by clarifying what suggestions are outside the program’s scope and mandate. For example, when soliciting input from the program participants regarding core recipes and snacks we would hear now and then “French Fries!”, “Doughnuts!”, etc. At this point we would take time to explain that recipes made during Guys Can Cook! workshops should follow healthy eating guidelines, and propose healthier alternatives.
Keep nutrition education hands-on and interactive. Education should never rely exclusively on lecturing, and especially within a community-based afterschool program for teenagers. Keep the activities short and sweet to accommodate participants’ attention spans and energy levels. Remember that guys come to the program after school and they look for an opportunity to spend their leisure time in a less structured environment. Adapt exercises to “pen and paper” format to provide a break from numerous screen-based activities, and ask guys to put away their electronic devices. Always include interactive and hands-on activities. Award participation with some small prizes to encourage engagement.
Meet them where they are. When teaching new skills, start with what participants already know and connect the new information with the context of participants’ everyday lives. Although the GCC curriculum adheres to a certain sequence of topics and recipes, input from the participants is sought to inform what core recipes and snacks will be prepared during the program. When soliciting input, we connect with participants’ cultural backgrounds by asking what foods they prefer to eat, what meals are served at home, and favourite dishes or snacks they would like to learn how to cook. We discuss availability and affordability of ingredients, and through such discussions we aim to reconnect participants with local food systems, such as local farmers markets, Good Food Markets, community gardens and other food-related resources in the neighbourhood.
Meet them where they are again! Bring training opportunities to the neighbourhood. Organizing additional training opportunities also benefits from “meeting them where they are” approach. This time we meet them “where they are” quite literally, in its geographical sense. Employment Skills Workshops and Food Handler trainings are provided to GCC program graduates as a bonus and are organized at each partnering community health centre to ensure everyone is able to access the training opportunity in their own neighbourhood.
Take them further by developing their skills, building capacities and encouraging leadership. This requires continuous mentoring and support. By connecting and partnering with other youth-focused programs or further developing youth programs at your agency, ensure that youth have access to a space that can continue to provide them with an opportunity to come together and participate in creating and sharing meals, and bonding in a positive environment.
Dos and Don’ts of Nutrition Education Activities for Guys Can Cook! Project
Guys Can Cook! program resources can be accessed at https://guyscancookproject.wordpress.com
(the website will be updated with final Program Manual and Cookbook in January 2017)
Guys Can Cook! project partners:
The Four Villages Community Health Centre
Davenport Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Centre
Parkdale Community Health Centre
Stonegate Community Health Centre
Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services
Unison Health and Community Services
LAMP Community Health Centre
Toronto Public Health
Toronto Employment and Social Services
West End Urban Health Alliance Nutrition Affiliate
The project is generously funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.