Cooking is a valuable life skill for youth to learn. With that in mind, Westman Immigrant Services decided to include cooking classes within their Youth Program. Joy Escalera, the manager of Settlement Services within Westman Immigrant Services, helps out with youth programming. She wanted to immerse youth in Canadian culture while also encouraging healthy eating. The Youth Program, coordinated by Rakan Al Shbak, aims to help immigrant youth integrate into their new communities. The program offers employment support, academic support, information workshops, and social support, including camps and classes. With the help of a Healthy Together Now grant, Rakan and Joy were able to plan a cooking program in the fall of 2020.
The cooking program was six sessions long, taking place in the kitchen of Prairie Oasis Senior Centre. COVID Public Health restrictions limited the number of participants allowed in the venue. Despite this, they accommodated the maximum number they could, having seven participants whose ages spanned from seventh to twelfth grade. Stephen Mitchell, a culinary arts instructor, was hired to teach the classes. Participants cooked various meals, including chicken alfredo flatbread pizza, homestyle pizza, chicken tacos, and fresh pasta. They also baked some desserts, including pumpkin cake and doughnut muffins. "They've learned some things that we do here in Canada that they were not doing at home," Joy explained. For example, some cookware commonly used in Canada, such as measuring cups and measuring spoons, aren't used in certain countries. By following recipes, participants became more familiar with Canadian methods of cooking.
Participants also learned the importance of safe food handling with each cooking lesson, as Rakan explained: "[The instructor] made sure that they understood how to cook in a safe environment." Education included ensuring foods are cooked to appropriate internal temperatures, keeping a clean kitchen, and avoiding cross-contamination. They also learned how to protect themselves from injury in the kitchen by handling knives safely and using stovetops and ovens carefully. Nutrition was an essential aspect of the program as well. The instructor taught participants about nutrients, including the functions of protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and vitamins. They learned about the quantities of each food group they should eat and where certain nutrients can be found. Tips about grocery shopping were also taught, including what to look for on nutrition labels.
In addition to healthy eating, the program became a way for youth to meet others. "It was a good way to get them connected to people belonging to different communities," explained Rakan, as the program brought in youth from different areas. In addition, newcomers to Canada had the opportunity to practice their English skills by speaking with others, listening to instructions, and reading recipes. "It's beyond cooking," explained Joy, as participants' confidence in their language abilities grew week by week.
By the end of the program, youth in the class were pleased with what they learned. "They really expressed that they enjoyed [the classes] and have learned a lot," said Joy. A parent of a participant reached out to Rakan and expressed her gratitude for the program; her child came home and cooked what they made in class that week with enthusiasm. Both Joy and Rakan are confident the program reached its goal of encouraging healthy eating as participants are now equipped to make healthy meals independently. The Youth Program plans to do more cooking classes in the future. To learn about this and other future events, be sure to check out their Facebook page, 'Westman Immigration Services,' as well as their website.
Interested in receiving funding for a project focused on healthy eating, physical activity, mental well-being or tobacco prevention and reduction in your community? Visit Prairie Mountain Health’s ‘Healthy Together Now’ page for more information on eligibility and how to apply.