Cooking in the classroom

Chico schoolchildren benefit from all-volunteer food-and-nutrition program

Kathryn Jackson and Alexander Cilensek—Miss Kathy and Chef Alex—are the energetic duo who volunteer their time to teach local schoolchildren how to prepare nutritious food.

Kathryn Jackson and Alexander Cilensek—Miss Kathy and Chef Alex—are the energetic duo who volunteer their time to teach local schoolchildren how to prepare nutritious food.

Reach out:
Send an email to to learn more and also to volunteer and/or donate to help with food and supplies for Chef Alex and Miss Kathy's food-education-in-schools program.

Twenty-seven apron-donning schoolchildren from the two second-grade classes at Chapman Elementary School, all piled into one colorful classroom, squirmed in their seats while Alexander Cilensek—affectionately called Chef Alex—dropped some popcorn kernels into an air popper.

“Did anyone have anything fabulous to eat over the weekend?” asked Kathryn Jackson—“Miss Kathy”—Cilensek’s assistant and the academic coordinator of the cooking duo. Hands flew up; kids were eager to share details of the apples, carrots, oranges, rice and salad they ate at home. “I had salad with pineapple and cucumbers!” announced one enthusiastic girl.

Jackson and Cilensek have been coming every Tuesday to Chapman Elementary since the fall of 2011. Although Cilensek is a participant in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools program, he is not working with school staff to improve cafeteria nutrition. He and Jackson are instead taking their knowledge and enthusiasm directly into the classroom, where they hope to make a big difference in the children’s lifelong food habits, as well as make the road easier for future chefs to volunteer their time.

“We’re trying to create the concepts of local, organic, sustainable and seasonal,” in addition to teaching about basic nutrition in a way that is accessible to young students, explained Jackson. “It’s a comprehensive ‘food-is-awesome-and-sharing-is-awesome’ [program], and [the students] are very receptive to it.”

Children in the classroom that morning waited patiently with bowls of piping-hot popcorn—topped with olive oil and nutritional yeast—until all the students were served. Then they wrote descriptions of the popcorn, using all their senses: how it looked, how it smelled, how it melted in their mouths.

Cilensek and Jackson have developed their curriculum together from scratch, and they pay for virtually all the costs of the program, such as food and supplies, themselves. This includes all the equipment Cilensek allows the children to use to, for example, shake the cream to make butter. The kids have made “rainbow salads,” veggie wraps, hummus, salsa—small snacks that are manageable to make in the classroom, but are in season and healthful.

The school year culminates every year in a field trip to Cilensek’s workplace, Tin Roof Bakery, where he is a chef. While there, the children learn food safety, see a pastry chef at work, and check out the industrial-kitchen appliances and the flour, sourdough starters and other ingredients.

“They’ve been very generous [with] donating all kinds of stuff,” said Cilensek of Tin Roof’s owner, Lloyd Stephenson, and General Manager Lisa Whitsett. The cooking duo are hoping that other members of the community will contribute as well, both donation-wise and time-wise.

Cilensek works with Chapman Elementary School second-graders during a recent cooking lesson.

Cilensek and Jackson got their start volunteering with Chef Richie Hirshen in Sherwood Montessori school’s wildly successful Garden to Table program. Previously, Hirshen and Cilensek worked together in Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s restaurant kitchen, where Hirshen was executive chef and Cilensek was chef de cuisine.

“I just wanted to share my passion of cooking with kids. And to learn about working with kids,” Cilensek said of his original motivation to volunteer. As a young apprentice chef, he had hands-on experiences with cooking and with a chef mentor: “I wanted to take the time for others—someone had taken the time for me.”

Jackson, who has a background in education, began volunteering with Cilensek because she had extra time during a period of unemployment; she now is studying early child development at Butte College, adjusting her school schedule to ensure it won’t interfere with her volunteerism.

“Serendipity was the word of the day,” said Jackson, when a mutual friend brought Hirshen and Cilensek to her home one day in 2011 because she thought they should meet. Inspired, Jackson joined Sherwood Montessori’s program the following week. That spring, the trio attended a community meeting to explore ways to reach kids via nutrition. At the meeting Jeanette Colbert, then a volunteer gardener at Chapman Elementary, invited Cilensek and Jackson to create their own program for Chapman. Colbert knew that to make growing the school’s own food more relevant, the students needed a companion cooking class.

That summer, Cilensek and Jackson volunteered with Laura Manning’s kindergarten class. By the fall, they expanded their program into several second-grade classes.

In the fall of 2012, “Cooking with Chef Alex & Miss Kathy” returned to Chapman as well as expanded to include Rose Scott School, a private K-12 open-structure school.

Cilensek and Jackson’s work is part of a growing national trend to combat the seemingly paradoxical combination of a rise in childhood obesity and diabetes and a high incidence of food insecurity among our community’s poorest families. Nearly one in three children or adolescents are now overweight or obese, according to the National Institutes of Health. Yet, many of those same children may be part of a family living below the federal poverty rate; almost one out of two American children live in poverty or in a low-income family.

Feeding America estimates that 16.7 million children in the United States live in food-insecure households. Food insecurity does not necessarily mean no food; the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a household with low food security as a household that has “reduced the quality, variety and desirability of their diets, but the quantity of food intake and normal eating patterns were not substantially disrupted.”

At Chapman, teacher Laura Fitzpatrick, whos second-grade class participates in the program, notes that many of the children receive breakfast, lunch and possibly a post-school snack at school, as part of the school’s Title I designation because it has a high proportion of low-income students.

For their part, Cilensek and Jackson are excited to be a part of the children’s lives and providing education on such a vital topic.

And they think it’s fun. “I’ve been cooking for 34 years. I’ve cooked in many countries around the world,” said Cilensek, “but this is the greatest work I’ve ever done. [The teachers and the students] are always thanking us, and we’re always thanking them.”