For more than 20 years, Lynn Walters has led a revolution that has transformed how children and their families eat. Sparked by an idea that hands-on learning in public schools could empower children and families to make healthy food choices, Lynn nurtured a small nonprofit from three volunteer chefs to a nationally acclaimed organization that has changed the lives of countless kids in Santa Fe and around the world.
Now Lynn is stepping away, ready for a change and confident that Cooking with Kids will continue to impact lives under the new leadership of Anna Farrier. “When we started in 1995, few programs used real food to teach nutrition,” she said during an interview over breakfast in the rambling garden at Harry’s Roadhouse. “That’s changed, and now there are lots of programs. Cooking with Kids can really serve as a resource for other communities. I’ve been thinking about this for the past few years, and it’s time to pass the baton.”
Lynn didn’t set out to become a chef with a desire to change how kids eat, although she’s long had a love of food. “I had a great sweet tooth growing up,” she said with a smile before taking a bite of buckwheat pancakes with wild Maine blueberries. “My grandmother came to the U.S. from Poland in the early 1900s. She made delicious apple strudel, borscht and other Eastern European delicacies. I watched her cook, fascinated. My family loved food, and cooking was an important part of our lives. My dad would grind his own flour to make bread. My mom taught me to bake cakes, and I loved the magic of baking.”
Growing up, Lynn moved from coast to coast and back again because her father’s job as an operations analyst took him around the country. She started out thinking she’d be a writer and enrolled at University of California Los Angeles then switched gears and studied photography at Cooper Union in New York City. After graduating, she moved from art to craft. “I learned from an old stonemason how to build fireplaces,” she said. “It helped to teach me some patience.”
After five years in the building trade, Lynn took a job baking at a popular vegetarian restaurant in Chapel Hill before heading to Santa Fe in 1980, where she cooked and washed dishes at the Natural Cafe. She soon met Shrikrishna Kashyap, a sage from India who became her spiritual and culinary mentor. “He taught me to make masala, dosas, dal, spiced vegetables and sweets such as kheer,” Lynn says. When the owners moved on, Lynn took over the Natural Cafe, got married and had two children who shared her love of cooking and good food. “When my kids were little and my son Peer wanted to know where bread came from, we grew a patch of wheat in the garden, threshed it in the wheelbarrow and ground it by hand,” she said.
The future came calling when, in 1994, the Santa Fe Student Nutrition Advisory Council asked Lynn to host a breakfast meeting about school meals at The Natural Cafe, known for its innovative international cuisine, including those East Indian specialties.
“At the time, I thought, ‘It’s not hard to cook real food, what’s the big deal about doing that in schools?’” Lynn says. “But I didn’t realize the scope of the regulatory constraints, the history, the funding issues and the social context around nutrition and school meals.” She got permission for three chefs—Kelly Rogers then of La Casa Sena, the Natural Cafe’s Michele Watkins and herself—to work with cafeteria cooks for several days each in three Santa Fe schools.
“Kelly brought tomatoes, chile and cilantro from his garden and made fresh salsa and black beans,” Lynn recalled. “I had this idea that green beans could be a great finger food, so we just blanched and shocked them then served the crisp, bright green beans whole. The kids threw them away because most had never tried fresh beans and perhaps thought they’d taste like canned green beans. What we had was a clear and immediate failure.”
But Lynn and her team—particularly Program Director Jane Stacey—persevered. The meetings with the Student Nutrition Advisory Council continued and grew in size. Then Lynn heard about research on food acceptance by Antonia Demas—founder and director of The Food Studies Institute. She was intrigued and called her.
“Antonia’s project was really interesting in that, to introduce new foods to kids, she had cooking classes in a school with half the students as the intervention group and the other half as the comparison group. She found that when these new foods were served as a side dish in the school cafeteria, the intervention group ate five to 20 times more than the comparison group, which had no experience with the new foods.”
Antonia visited Santa Fe and taught a few classes at Salazar and E.J. Martinez elementary schools. Then Chef/Author Deborah Madison and Cafe Pasqual’s Chef/Owner Katharine Kagel, along with a few other chefs, volunteered to teach some elementary school classes and thus, Cooking with Kids was born.
The program has blossomed over two decades and now annually impacts 5,000 students—pre-kindergarten through sixth grade in 13 Santa Fe schools—with unique, hands-on food and nutrition education programs that are also used in other countries. The Super Chefs program brings Santa Fe celebrity chefs into the classroom to work with Cooking with Kids staff and recipes. Another program brings local farmers into schools to share freshly harvested tomatoes, apricots, greens and more, and talk about where food originates.
“That intention to improve school food never really went away,” Lynn says. “We adapted the recipes we developed for classroom cooking lessons for cafeteria use and for many years Cooking with Kids school lunches have been served as part of the regular menu rotation. We’re also now helping to design the menus in collaboration with the Santa Fe Public Schools’ Student Nutrition Department and highlighting school food staff and local farmers who sell their produce to the schools.”
As Cooking with Kids has flourished, so has its support network. Local restaurants, businesses and culinary organizations donate some supplies. Financial support includes grants from the Santa Fe Children and Youth Commission, McCune Foundation, Frost Foundation, Santa Fe Community Foundation and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through the New Mexico Department of Health, along with generous funding from the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, Los Alamos National Bank, Santa Fe Public Schools and others. The Cooking with Kids board of directors works incredibly hard to ensure the organization fulfills its life-changing mission.
Cooking with Kids’ curriculum began with recipes that reflected the Natural Cafe’s menu, which was devoted to foods around the world. “Because, besides exploring food, cooking offers a great way to learn about other countries and to understand how people are different—and similar,” Lynn says. “For example, people make flatbreads all over the world, from Injera in Ethiopia to Mediterranean flatbread to corn tortillas. Through direct experience with food, children are learning that there’s an amazing array of food out there.”
The group has received many honors and awards, including from Michele Obama’s Recipes for Schools, the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While these distinctions have brought Cooking with Kids into the spotlight, Lynn’s more thrilled by stories from teachers and parents.
“A teacher told me that after her class did a peas tasting, one of her students was shopping with his mom and asked to buy some peas. His mom said ‘You do not like peas,’ so he picked up a pea and ate it—and the mom was shocked. Before that, a boy who brought cookies and chips to school started bringing pears and peas instead. And then there’s the constant refrain from kids: ‘I didn’t think I was going to like onions or tomatoes, but then I did.’ Along with, ‘It was good because we made it!’ ”
So what’s next for Lynn? One step takes her full-circle, as she’ll be returning to her first creative love, writing, while staying in a field she knows best. “I have a few writing projects I’m planning,” she says. “The first involves my recent Ph.D. project at the University of New Mexico, which focused on high school students’ perceptions of the influences on their food practices.”
In synchronous timing, as Lynn steps down from the organization she’s nurtured for two decades, Cooking with Kids is unveiling its own cookbook. Written by Lynn, Jane and former Americorps Member Gabrielle Gonzales, it’s intended for families to use together, with some 65 kid-tested dishes, tips for engaging children in the kitchen and garden, educational activities and illustrations by kids, of course.
Learn more about Cooking with Kids at cookingwithkids.org.
Help celebrate The Cooking with Kids Cookbook at launch parties on Sunday, Oct. 16 at 3 pm at Santa Fe’s Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse, and on Saturday, Oct. 22 at 11 am at Albuquerque’s Bookworks.
Story by Lynn Cline