California teen Elena Dennis wanted to help kids have healthy diets, and what better way than to encourage them to learn how to make fresh foods? Dennis, while a high school senior, cooked up an idea for a camp that helps kids discover the fun of learning how to cook, and how to prepare and eat healthy foods from scratch. Bringing kids awareness of healthy foods, she also took the camp on local field trips to farms and farmers’ markets.
Awareness: At the young age of 12, Elena Dennis of Novato, Calif. (23.1 % Latino), started developing a passion for cooking thanks to her father’s home-cooked meals and her attendance at Operation C.H.E.F., a nutrition-based cooking summer camp for kids and teens.
“I’ve always been a believer in home-cooked meals, and my Dad taught me how to cook with all these different techniques,” she said.
As her interest grew, so did her awareness of how food can influence a person’s health.
Learn: Saturday mornings she spent her free time researching and reading online about how different foods negatively or positively influence health, or help prevent disease.
“Little did I know how food could affect my body,” Dennis said.
In the summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school, Dennis was accepted to intern in a summer scholars program at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, a science lab focused on age-related diseases. There, Dennis helped conduct research on the effect of diet on a person’s longevity and how diseases develop over time. The research focused on the diets of fruit flies and how kidney stones could develop by what the fruit flies consumed.
“After having a more scientific approach to diet and disease, I knew that was something I wanted to pursue in college and beyond,” she said.
“I want to share my knowledge of nutrition and cooking with kids.”
Frame Issue: Diet and disease were big issues in Dennis’ hometown of Novato, where more funding for healthy school meals is controversial for financial reasons. According to the Marin county’s Physical Activity Nutrition Wellness Collaborative, more than one-third of children ages 2-17 are overweight or obese, which is more than the national average.
Dennis wanted to help the future generations fight obesity and stay healthy.
She decided—as she reflected on her time at the cooking camp she had taken years before—to try and start a similar summer camp to teach kids healthy cooking skills and how to incorporate healthy foods in their cooking, so they could make healthier lifelong dietary choices.
“Once kids know how to cook, they can know how to [better] feed themselves, and they can choose what’s the healthier option for them, too.” Dennis said.
Education/Mobilization: Dennis started to envision her camp.
She thought it could have nutritional education, field trips to local farmers markets, and interactive recipe making—elements that are peer-to-peer and strive for greater engagement than the camp she attended as a young girl.
“For me [the camp from years ago] felt very much like assembly,” she said. “I knew I wanted something more hands on with my camp.”
She would have to find out what schools would want her camp, and how to get them interested in letting her do the camp for free on school grounds as an afterschool program.
In fall 2013, Dennis wrote emails to elementary school principals in her area about starting her camp; they indicated time was an issue.
Researching online for leaders that might help her empower more action, Dennis found Miguel Villarreal, Director of Food & Nutritional Services for the Novato Unified School District. She emailed him to introduce herself and share her idea for a cooking camp.
They exchanged a few emails in January 2014. In April 2014, Dennis met with Villarreal and explained how she wanted to run a week-long summer cooking camp that would be led by students to encourage their peers to make healthy meals at home. Villarreal said he told her that he would be glad to support her efforts.
“I got really excited that he believed in what I wanted to do for Novato and [our] schools,” Dennis said.
Villarreal was intrigued about Dennis’ camp idea because it would meet all his idea for a culture of health at school, which includes three “C’s”:
“With her passion for education and our schools’ commitment to healthy, local food in cafeterias, our combined efforts could be a winning combination for creating a culture of health and wellness in our schools,” Villarreal said.
He wanted to target Lu Sutton Elementary as the school that would pilot-test the first cooking camp over the 2014 summer as the school was already working with healthy cooking labs from Chef Holly Green during the school year. Villarreal also wanted to keep the camp’s invitation open to any kids across the district that may be interested.
Activation/Frame Policy: After Dennis had Villarreal’s commitment to provide a kitchen facility at Lu Sutton Elementary and nutrition cooking kits from a past school grant, she began to reach out to local grocers for donations. Dennis did not have status as a 501c3 non-profit to accept donations from grocery stores, so she found a solution by creating a crowdfunding website through Indegogo.
She used the site to gather donations and decided to call her summer cooking camp “Camp Cauliflower.”
Villarreal made sure flyers were put up at local elementary schools to identify potential student participants. Dennis asked her friends to volunteer as camp assistants.
Reframe Policy: Dennis planned recipes, placed food orders, and arranged field trips to local farms for Camp Cauliflower, which would encourage students to use their creativity in cooking, making various flavors for sauces and salad dressings from fresh vegetables and herbs, along with other planned healthy recipes.
The camp would be open for any elementary-aged child from any local school.
Change: In July 2014, Dennis held her first Camp Cauliflower week at the district’s Food and Nutritional Services kitchen at Lu Sutton Elementary School. The week-long hands-on camp provides students an opportunity to learn to read recipes and create new healthy dishes all from scratch, like homemade ravioli, fresh salads, pizza, tostadas, guacamole, salsa and healthy agua frescas.
“We do a lot of taste testing,” said Dennis. “I will give them an array of choices, and depending on their taste buds, they develop their own flavors.”
Implementation: Five girls got involved in the pilot program at Lu Sutton Elementary School.
Villarreal said this test was “extremely successful.” He said he noticed that peer-to-peer learning was very effective through Dennis’ camp, where students were nurturing new ideas and increasing their knowledge of healthful eating while expanding their appetites for delicious and nutritious foods. Students also enjoyed visiting local farms to learn about where fresh food comes from and how to make it a part of their meal planning.
“As I watched over the first year of Camp Cauliflower, my excitement and belief in a future generation of passionate, healthy eaters was strengthened,” Villarreal mentioned in an article, “Elena and her fellow high school volunteers were and inspiration to watch as they interacted with younger students.”
Dennis and the original five participants built strong connections and became leaders for the next year’s camp by encouraging more students to get involved.
“I got close to all of them,” Dennis said. “They are my passionate leaders now in their schools. They are recruiting a lot more campers, which is really fun.”
The young girl campers thoroughly enjoyed Camp Cauliflower and visiting the local farms and gardens.
“My favorite part of Camp cauliflower was going to the garden,” said a girl in a Camp Cauliflower video.
Dennis and Villarreal decided to promote the camp more extensively in 2015. Dennis decided to use Kickstarter to fundraise for the summer sessions of 2015, and the camp grew to a larger facility with two one-week camp sessions, with 15 students participating per camp.
Equity: Many parents informed Villarreal and Dennis after the camp that their child was now more open to eating new fruits and vegetables, and want to get more involved in cooking at home for the family.
“They are learning skills, they are cooking with fresh ingredients, they can’t wait to go home and show their parents what they’ve learned,” Villarreal said. “In some instances, they may even be teaching their parents.”
Participants also become equipped for greater roles in leadership and advocacy, Villarreal said.
“This experience of peer education not only provided these high school students an opportunity to exercise their leadership skills but a vehicle through which they were able to become active, motivated stakeholders in our work to create a healthier environment in our schools and community,” he said. “They’ve shown us that adults aren’t the only ones shaping the food movement—students are also providing vision, ideas, and leading the way.”
Sustainability: Although Dennis is now in college, she plans to continue the camps in the summer of 2015 until she can pass on the skills and knowledge to a new group of interested and engaged high school students that can continue growing the camp.
“I want to expand this program, and how to make these kids love nutrition and being healthy,” she said.
Villarreal explained that young campers from the first camps are now the ones wanting to step up for the future of Camp Cauliflower. Villarreal hopes to see them take place as leaders, so he keeps in contact with them and asks them about being an instructor for the camp in the future.
“I can just see their eyes light up when I ask them if they can see themselves in that same capacity as an instructor,” Villarreal said.