4-H Culinary Lessons in Action

Through cooking classes, competitions and even a product development contest, Georgia 4-H agents connect young foodies to their head, hearts, hands and health through food.   

“I think food is a good way to connect with kids because, for a lot of people, it’s important to their families. It’s a family event to sit down and share a meal together,” said Laurie Murrah-Hanson, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension 4-H Youth Development agent in Fulton County. “Food is something that is a big part of everyone’s life, no matter what their background is.”

From Georgia 4-H’s canning clubs to old-school home economics projects in District Project Achievement competitions, food has always played a major role in 4-H clubs, Jeremy Cheney, UGA Extension 4-H agent for Fulton County, said. That history enabled Georgia 4-H to help young people channel the current obsession with food, celebrity chefs and cooking into personal development.

This spring, UGA Extension Family and Consumer Sciences and 4-H agents in Fulton County hosted a kids’ cooking competition in the heart of downtown Atlanta at the Ponce City Farmers Market to familiarize the public with Georgia 4-H and to relaunch Fulton Fresh, a nutrition education program operated by Fulton County Extension.

Modeled after shows like “Chopped Junior,” the 15-student competition offered a chance to learn about the culinary world, nutrition and UGA Extension.

The children at the Fulton Fresh Kids’ Cooking Competition — all fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders — were randomly placed into teams of four and created a balanced meal from grilled cheese components, kale and a basket of other mandatory ingredients. A panel of Atlanta restaurant chefs judged the meals.

The winning team made a kale salad to accompany their sandwich. The team included Parker Payne, 10, of Woodward Academy; Victoria Sweeney, 10, of Warren T. Jackson Elementary School; Isaiah Farrow, 10, of Georgia Connections Academy; and Nile Smith, 10, of Roswell North Elementary School. 

Even though the lure of reality TV shows like “Chopped” and “Top Chef” brought students to the competition, the lessons they learned were real.

“Most of these kids had never met and were randomly placed on teams together, but their level of communication, teamwork and creativity was phenomenal,” said Kristen Sumpter, UGA Extension Family and Consumer Sciences agent for Fulton County and Fulton Fresh coordinator. “Even when we threw them curveballs, like extra mandatory ingredients, they just kept cooking with as much excitement and creativity as they did when they opened their baskets. Lemons were being zested and kale was being massaged. It was like we were watching professional chefs create new dishes.”

In addition to introducing students to Georgia 4-H, Sumpter organized the competition to showcase Fulton Fresh, which will use a 4-H club model to provide healthy cooking classes to fifth-graders in Atlanta city schools this fall.

Georgia 4-H’ers in the organization’s Food Product Development Contest sometimes spend years perfecting their concepts for new snack foods.

This contest requires each team of senior Georgia 4-H’ers to develop a novel food product as well as full marketing, and production and distribution plans for that product. Food industry and food science experts then rate each team’s presentation based on the product’s potential success in the market.

Chatham County 4-H’s GAP2 team won this year’s contest with their Georgia-grown scone and muffin hybrid, the “scuffin.” They worked on the product for the past three years. The scuffin debuted in the contest in 2014, when most of the team members were high school sophomores.

“The third time is the charm, and we finally won,” said team member Faythe Robinson, a senior at Windsor Forest High School. “It feels like the heaviest weight has been lifted.”

The Savannah-based team includes Robinson; Ashley Johnson, a junior at Savannah Arts Academy; Anna Morris, a home-schooled student with dual enrollment at Armstrong State University; Amari McDonald, a senior at Woodville-Tompkins Technical and Career High School with dual enrollment at Point University in West Point, Georgia; and Sonte Davis, a senior at Savannah Early College High School with dual enrollment at Savannah State University.

The Food Product Development Contest gives students a way to focus on their interest in food and teaches the public-speaking and leadership skills and the dedication for which Georgia 4-H is known.

“These youth are well on their way to careers in food development,” said Cheryl Varnadoe, UGA Extension 4-H specialist, who has organized the contest for more than a decade. “We hope that many of them will choose to attend UGA and study food science.”

For more information about the wide range of programs offered by Georgia 4-H, visit georgia4H.org.

By Merritt Melancon