Online Cooking Camp Serves More than Just Good Food

Operating a cooking camp in a world of social distancing is a challenge, to say the least. But that didn’t stop Empowerment Center Executive Director Robyn Kitsutaka and her team. Together with co-facilitator Gabriela Garza-Vasquez (a Masters candidate in Somatic Psychology at Naropa), Kitsutaka created the “What’s Cooking” online summer program, which uses the culinary arts as a jumping-off point for cultural education. 

Geared to kids in middle and high school, “What’s Cooking” combines on- and offline activities, and includes weekly ingredient baskets available for safe, socially-distant pickup. Each week features a new recipe, plus videos on related techniques like measuring or knife skills. Campers also have a standing weekly assignment to make and share a unique family recipe.

While all this at-home cooking likely creates some messy kitchens, it also yields important benefits. “Since kids are cooking in their own homes, rather than at a camp location, it’s definitely created extra ‘together time’ for families,” says Kitsutaka. Student Wyatt Lunz agrees, and appreciates the flexibility of the online format. “I can work with my family to make the food, and I can partially make my own timeline,” he says. 

For student Vanessa Diaz, cooking at home has made the camp more meaningful. “I feel like an actual cook making a recipe at home in my own kitchen. The whole class and experience is a lot more personal.”

In addition to introducing young chefs to the joys of the kitchen, “What’s Cooking” delves into nutrition education and important questions about the role of food in our society. “Last week the Executive Director of Meals on Wheels joined us via google meet, as part of a larger conversation about food insecurity,” says Kitsutaka, who also curates TEDTalk videos and other online resources to round out the programming for the twice-weekly online meetups. Each camper receives art journaling supplies to create a space for personal reflection, creativity and storytelling on the topics discussed.

“The combination of screen-time and hands-on activities is critical to keeping kids engaged,” says Kitsutaka, who often devotes a portion of the google meeting time to independent journaling. “It’s too much to expect kids to watch a screen for two hours. Journaling somehow creates a sense that we’re all together, even while working on individual projects. And the kids are really pretty open about sharing what they write or draw.”

The Empowerment Center will build on the success of “What’s Cooking” with a similar program tailored to elementary school kids in July. Looking ahead to the school year, Kitsutaka and her team plan to apply the lessons of summer to additional online or hybrid programs for Lafayette youth. “We’re thinking of this summer as a pilot,” she explains. “As we all figure out new ways to do things, this is a place to start.”