Seventy-five schoolchildren will be learning how to slice onions, cook pasta, roast vegetables, and make dinners like stuffed peppers and homemade tomato soup this fall as My Daughter's Kitchen cooking program continues to expand and evolve in its fourth season.

The mission remains the same as when the lessons began with my own daughter: teaching kids to cook simple, healthful, delicious meals on a budget.

Thirty-two volunteers - most of them Inquirer readers who wrote in after reading about the program - will begin teaching 15 afterschool classes around the city and across the river in Camden.

As the program continues to grow and add more schools, it has also built more partnerships, in addition to the primary one, with the Vetri Foundation for Children, now handling administration, screening of volunteers, and development of recipes.

"We share the same mission: helping kids understand the connection between eating well and feeling well," said Kelly Herrenkohl, executive director of the foundation.

"Getting children cooking [and eating] good food is essential to the Vetri Foundation's mission," said Marc Vetri, chef and co-founder of the foundation. "The ripple effect of teaching this skill to kids will reach families and communities all over the city."

This fall, we also begin a partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia, which recently built a sleek commercial kitchen for events and cookbook author demonstrations.

Students from the Russell Byers Charter School, just two blocks away, are walking over for cooking lessons there, which I will be teaching with the help of Liz Fitzgerald (no relation), director of culinary literacy for the library.

I will also be assisted by Aelyn Estevez, 17, who is traveling the few blocks from Ben Franklin High, where she's enrolled in a culinary program. She'll join us as a volunteer, as part of another new partnership, with C-CAP, the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program. Five culinary students are joining the program in all: Noel Hooks and Nyequa Williams, from Dobbins High, will be at St. Martin De Porres in North Philadelphia. And Tiana Scott and Cache Walls, also at Dobbins, will be volunteering at Community Partnership School.

ShopRite stores continue to finance the groceries for the program, and to offer discount coupons to the schools. This year, the Brown family reached out to other ShopRite owners in the region and they responded. Our thanks to the Brown family, the Ravitz family, the Zallie family, the McMenamin family, and the Ammons family for their generosity, providing nearly $3,000 in groceries this fall.

Thanks also to Oxo, which donated over $1,600 worth of products, including some of their most popular cooking utensils for the classes: vegetable peelers, cutting boards, mixing bowls, graters, measuring cups, and spoons.

Classes are being taught in 12 schools in Philadelphia and two schools in Camden this fall. At Bayard Taylor School in North Philadelphia, where a stove donated by a reader was installed last fall in a corner of the school cafeteria, that donation is being put to great use: The program there has expanded to two days a week after school.

After I taught a class there with Taylor teacher Lorrie Craley last fall, she and fellow teacher Nicole Molino continued the classes in spring. Their students loved the lessons, and so many more asked to be included that they recruited two more teachers and created a second class after school.

"I could see us having a class every day after school," Molino said. "I have so many students asking if they can come and cook."

These dedicated teachers are volunteering - without being paid - extending their school day by two hours.

We have four new schools joining the program this fall: In addition to Russell Byers, Philadelphia Montessori in South Philadelphia, La Salle Academy in North Philadelphia, and Urban Promise in Camden.

At Philadelphia Montessori, participation in the program was an inspiration for principal Carrie Kries, who is raising money to build a kitchen in memory of her mother Jane Green, who died in July. In her mother's memory, she requested donations be made to the school for the building of a teaching kitchen to be named "Janie's Kitchen." Inquirer reader Dianne McNally, of Paoli, had written several months ago with an offer to donate a stove. It has now been delivered to Janie's Kitchen.

There's something that just keeps this project growing and inspires others to get involved.

This month, Health Partners, a Medicaid HMO owned by seven nonprofit hospitals, awarded the program its "Make a Difference Award." Catherine McCarron, director of clinical programs there, said she nominated the program because she knows the importance of cooking and eating right, as so many of their clients suffer from diabetes.

It is such a simple idea: Prepare a healthy meal with kids after school, when they are hungry, teaching them basic skills along the way. The goal is to use fresh vegetables and fruits, nothing processed, and introduce new foods, flavors, and techniques. After preparing the dish, the kids set the table and sit down to share a meal and conversation.

Many people have asked if the kids progress to making the meals with their families. Some do, and I've got the cellphone photos they sent to prove it!

But if for two hours after school, these 75 students are seeing first-hand how easy and inexpensive it is to cook for themselves; that healthy food doesn't have to taste bad; that it gets easier each time you chop an onion or peel a potato; that things go better when you work as a team; and that it's worth taking the time to cook and set the table and sit down together for a nice meal. . . . Well, that's enough for me.

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