Toronto program teaches at-risk youth how to cook healthy meals on a budget

By: Anussa Nithiyananthan, courtesy of Global News, published June 3, 2019

Cooking isn’t rocket science — at least, not at a special cooking program that teaches cooking and kitchen safety to at-risk Toronto youth.

The PACTCooking program helps young people ages 13 to 21 learn culinary and kitchen safety skills.

Each week, the students prepare a variety of recipes from around the world. A recent dinner included vegetable chili, chickpea curry with pita bread and cornbread muffins and brownies for dessert. Any food that’s left over the students can take for lunch the next day.

Students also learn how to cook on a budget. This week, the six students in the class learned about cooking on a budget. The class was asked to prepare about 50 meals on a $50 budget.

“It’s amazing the amount of produce and food you can buy within a budget,” says Taylor Salisbury, PACTCooking program’s instructor.

Students receive a binder that’s filled with recipes and kitchen tips so they can practise cooking at home. But in addition to learning for themselves, the students give back to the community. In 2018, the program donated 840 cooked meals to low-income women seniors at Stonegate Community Health Centre in Toronto. 

“We have a number of skills around cooking. One of the primary elements to our programs is that we try to teach skills as well as contribute to the community,” says David Lockett, president and co-founder of PACT.

The cooking program is part of the PACT Urban Peace Program — PACT stands for Participation, Acknowledgement, Commitment and Transformation — a charity that helps underserved, marginalized and at-risk young people.

Other than the cooking program, PACT hosts many other programs all year round. There is a music program for those who are interested in learning how to play an instrument, a building program for those who want to be able to build things and a fashion program for those who want to learn how to make clothes and accessories.

Statistics Canada reports that approximately 1.2 million Canadian children live in low-income families — nearly 17 per cent of the country’s population. 

Nishta Saxena, a dietitian from Vibrant Nutrition, has taught classes similar to the ones offered by PACT and delivers talks about the nutrition to kids. She says low-income families often don’t have time to make food for their children so they give them $5 to buy fast food, such as a slice of pizza and pop.

“You do have to prepare more food yourself if you actually want to eat good food,” Saxena says.

“If you’re cooking pasta — which is incredibly nutritious food and very low-cost — you can make large quantities of it. You can have it for leftovers and you change up the recipes. You are making that for pennies of servings.”

The topic may be serious, but there’s room in the class for kids to be kids. In this week’s class, one student accidentally added a quarter cup of salt instead of a quarter teaspoon of salt to the brownies. Another student took it home to prank his mom.

Beginner classes meet on Monday evenings, usually in eight-week sessions offered four times a year. Intermediate classes are offered every Thursday for six weeks. 

Many students who have graduated from the cooking program have come back and volunteered their time.