“When kids are allowed to make food themselves, they want to try it,” said UNLV student Alex Amirsoleimani, smiling. “It’s very powerful.”
Amirsoleimani and a team of Harrah Hotel College students have been taking this message to local elementary schools — showing kids not only how to make food, but also how to make food safe and more nutritious. It’s all part of their Nutrition in Food Service class, taught by hotel administration professor Christine Bergman.
“I have tasked the students with this project for the last four semesters,” Bergman said. “The students wear their chef jackets, introduce themselves as UNLV students, and then go through proper hand washing techniques, knife safety, and nutrition exercises and games. This gets the elementary students excited about the material and gives my students a boost of confidence.”
Thai spring rolls were on the menu during the UNLV students’ spring trip to Triggs Elementary School in North Las Vegas, where third graders piled rice noodles, carrots, cucumbers, mint, and basil leaves inside soft rice wraps. After dipping their creations in sweet and sour sauce, it was time for tasting.
“Some of them had never heard of spring rolls before the class,” said Triggs science teacher Kristin Lilley, who organized the visit. “When I asked them if they'd make them at home, one student told me, 'I'd add shrimp to mine and keep the vegetables. And sauce. Lots of sauce!’“
Although some of the young chefs complained that the rolls were too spicy, most were smiling from ear to ear and proud of their accomplishment.
“I like that programs like this give young children the knowledge necessary to make healthy choices when snacking at home, but also increase their family connection when they can get involved in the kitchen,” added Lilley. “Making healthy decisions about food beginning at a young age will help propel my students into maintaining a healthy life.”
Along with Amirsoleimani, the team of UNLV students included Blake Krowicki, Andrew Shim, Ziyan Wang, Xiaotong Chen, and Caitlin Raber. The project brings about enormous practical benefits for the university students as well, Bergman said. “Through this experience, my students learn training skills, how to work with limited resources, and how to interact with people they don’t know. They’re also tasked with writing a full report of their experience, sharing their results, and then describing what they would do differently next time.”
And then there’s the social responsibility component embraced by Bergman and her students.
“If every kid left high school knowing how make five to 10 meals, we could change the obesity problem in America,” said Bergman, who receives inspiration from celebrity chef/nutrition guru Jamie Oliver as well as the Green Our Planet organization, promoting community gardens and sustainable farming. “Knowing where our food comes from is key,” added Bergman.
Amirsoleimani came up with the idea for each food & beverage student to grow his/her own tomatoes. “If elementary school kids are growing their own food, then we should be doing it,” she said after learning that many local elementary schools, like Triggs, are planting and maintaining gardens on the grounds. “This way we can learn about all of the factors that a farmer deals with … all of things that can affect a crop, like animals, the weather, etc.”
Bergman sees a bright future for students who have gained the unique mix of skills provided by participating in projects like these: “Not many people out there know food service, farming, and food distribution,” said Berman. “People like Alex are going to change the conversation when it comes to school nutrition.”
One ingredient Bergman knows all of the students will take with them is the feeling of giving back. “After facing their anxiety about preparing for and then teaching a class, most of my students report that this activity helped them realize that they can positively impact their community. I think everyone can.”