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Battling for healthy food against the fast-food giants

Turkey sloppy joes and pickled cucumbers were on the menu for our second week of cooking class at Prince Hall elementary school in North Philadelphia in our continuing attempt to convince kids they can prepare healthy dinners that taste great.

But as we settled into the rhythm of peeling and chopping and measuring and sauteing, I was reminded once again how tough it is to combat the omnipresence of junk food in the lives of children.

As Jordan Francis, 9, stirred and cooked the ground turkey in a skillet, he was merrily singing a McDonald's jingle.

As the kids chatted about their favorite foods, not a single nutritious choice was among them. Yet they swooned over a newish offering from Burger King: chicken fries. "I love them," said Anasty Feliciano, 8. The french fry-shaped strips of fried chicken were reintroduced by the fast-food giant in the last couple years as some healthier options were cut from the menu.

And as one student was unzipping her backpack, a bag of Cheetos fell out, bought on the way to school, she said.

After teaching more than 50 cooking classes to school children over the last few years, I know kids will eat carrots sticks and sliced apples and oranges. They will eat roasted cod and roasted broccoli and even split pea soup. They have scarfed up butternut squash and kale tacos. And ratatouille. Week after week, I see children try new foods and surprise themselves about how good it tastes and how much they like it.

But that's when the ingredients are laid out before them and they are learning to prepare meals with their friends. What happens after the eight weeks of cooking classes, when the kids are bombarded with fast-food advertising, when soda and a bag of chips remain the cheapest, tastiest, and easiest option?

As the number of people suffering from diabetes, obesity, and heart disease has grown astronomically, so has the number of programs encouraging healthy eating, not the least of which is first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign for wholesome food and exercise.

Throughout the city and region, there are dozens of organizations trying to change the culture. The Food Trust, one of the leaders in the nation, championed the elimination of soda from city schools and embarked on the Corner Store initiative to encourage bodegas to carry fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition to managing farmers' markets, it has a number of nutrition education programs in the schools as well as programs like Get H.Y.P.E. Philly (Healthy You. Positive Energy) to encourage students to become "ambassadors" for healthy food and physical activity in their schools.

Even the Free Library of Philadelphia is offering cooking classes in the Central Library and at some branches to encourage what it is calling culinary literacy, to teach reading and literacy through cooking.

But even with all these programs, it remains a long, hard struggle to get back to preparing simple home- cooked meals the way our grandparents did. How did fast food, processed food, and prepared food, often loaded with salt and fat, become the norm and home cooking become the aberration in just one generation?

After speaking with Aunnalea Grove, program director of Get H.Y.P.E. Philly, we resolved to join forces to fight the good fight, introducing our children and families to all the programs available.

This week, in 31 classes around the region, My Daughter's Kitchen volunteers taught kids how to make an alternative to the sloppy joes most of them know that come out of a can. We made them with ground turkey, which is leaner and lower in fat than beef, adding just a few ingredients: onion, celery, ketchup, hot sauce. They were served on rolls made from whole wheat and potatoes - an improvement over refined white flour - that did not result in a single complaint.

As a complement, the kids learned how to quick-pickle cucumbers, peeling and slicing and then soaking them in vinegar and sugar and water and a pinch of salt.

It seems so simple, to cook and share a meal together, but each week, it restores my faith that good food can prevail over junk when I see how much the kids enjoy the meal they have prepared.

And if one of the goals is to help kids understand that how they feel is connected to how they eat, we accomplished that mission this week.

"Today, I felt so good. I was very happy when I cooked," Jordan wrote after eating our sloppy joes.

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