Kid Chef Takeover
Bon Appétit Management Company has started “Healthy Kids” to expose the youngest among us to new flavors.
A year ago Rebecca McKinney shone the spotlight on Bon Appétit Management Company and their intense commitment to changing the way we think of the cafeteria experience (The Dining Hall Comes of Age, Spring 2017). Even then, we didn’t know just how devoted the company is to food education, starting with those just old enough to step into the kitchen.
Such was the scene on a recent Tuesday evening when guests from Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Upstate arrived at Milliken’s corporate headquarters in Spartanburg to take part in Bon Appétit’s Healthy Kids Program. Led by the program’s creator and Manager of Food Education for Children, Hannah Schmunk, and Executive Chef and General Manager, Jennifer Uphold, this event proved as enriching for grown-ups as for the little people.
The class began with an introduction to fruits and vegetables, complete with a Q&A session to test the kids’ knowledge of food, which was surprisingly high. Half of the children in attendance claimed an interest in cooking and all could name at least one favorite fruit and vegetable (kudos to the one kid who proudly claimed asparagus as her favorite veggie). They recognized the importance of a healthy diet as they proudly exclaimed things like “plants make us strong!” and even “they give us electrolytes!”—prompting laughter that unmasked every adult fan of Idiocracy in the room.
The kids were an adventurous bunch who all tasted fennel (both raw and cooked) and star fruit without hesitation. The fennel reviews ranged from “like a strong onion” to “tastes like licorice” while star fruit was compared to “an apple and onion mixed together” and just plain “soap!” With their palates expanded and taste buds awakened, the kids moved to the hands-on portion of the evening: they were about to make themselves dinner.
The children gathered around the commercial-grade mixer to add the ingredients for fresh pizza dough and then sauce. Chef Jennifer explained each ingredient and its importance to the process, showing the children just how easy it would be to make this for themselves at home. The real fun started, though, when they donned their aprons and rolled up their sleeves to cover themselves in flour as they rolled out their own portioned dough for a pizza specifically of their choosing.
Here the children’s personalities were revealed through their cooking styles. There were the just-plain-cheese kids, those who attempted to put every available vegetable in the room on their pie, and the artist types who carefully arranged their toppings to make a face so their creation could smile back at them before they ate it. Some handled their dough like veteran Italian masters while others treated it as delicately as grandma’s vase.
While their pizzas cooked, the kids engaged in a fruit-kabob assembly where they were properly trained in knife skills and allowed to cut their own fruit with plastic cutlery (and close supervision). Not a scratch was incurred and every bite of fruit was promptly consumed before they sat down for the main course—their very own pizzas.
In the end, every child enjoyed not only the first pizza they had ever made for themselves but what seemed like the best as well. If the goal of Healthy Kids is to provide a room full of children with a sense of empowerment and an understanding of the fulfillment only a healthy, home cooked meal can provide, it is an obvious success.
All of this is the brainchild of Schmunk who claims to have “stumbled...into this” despite every indication that she was put on Earth for this mission alone. She admits to always having had a passion for “food justice” and recalls tearing up as a child, asking herself the question, “Why do I have great food and others don’t?” This trait led her to a position at Project Open Hand, a non-profit organization in San Francisco committed to providing meals to critically ill neighbors and seniors. After four years and an itch for the next step, she spent some time in Tanzania where she volunteered and lived in a children’s village. These villages, she explains, are not orphanages—there is no goal of adoption and the environment is that of a permanent home and a familial lifestyle. There she lived in a hut with children ranging in age from two to 15 and that is where she had her epiphany.
“This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says, referencing a previously unconsidered passion for working with children. Her fear, however, was that upon her return to San Francisco she would not be able to find something to satisfy her desire to work with both children and food. Fate, as it often does, came calling soon after her return when she caught wind of the plans to open a Bon Appétit garden in AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. She was quick to land a job with the company and, in due time, spearheaded the plans to launch the Healthy Kids program with the stadium and its garden serving as its base of operations.
That was 2015. In that first year Schmunk introduced roughly 5,000 kids to the garden and a lifestyle of healthy food choices. It soon became apparent that the program could go mobile and, with Bon Appetit’s presence in university and corporate kitchens across the United States, there was no shortage of venues in which to operate. Today she spends her days traveling all over the country teaming with local chefs using local ingredients to show kids of all walks of life how to look at their next meal just a little bit differently.
On this particular trip, Hannah Schmunk—world traveling, San Francisco based, food superstar—was at home. She is originally from Spartanburg and this trip added more than just the usual rewards of lighting up the faces of a room full of children. It was, instead, a brief homecoming. She has been able to spend time with friends and family while having a direct impact on the children of her own hometown. For the rest of us, it is simply wonderful to know that she is out there on the road making the Upstate proud, one kitchen classroom at a time.