Guys Can Cook! writes a recipe for success by engaging young men in its program design

Guys Can Cook participants roll pizza dough with a chef student from George Brown College, at the Four Villages CHC in 2015.

by Jason Rehel, story producer and editor, AOHC


Give a kid a nutrition lesson in a classroom, and he might forget it later that day. Teach a kid to cook nutritious meals he likes to eat and share with friends, and those lessons might just last a lifetime. Involve a kid in how those lessons are taught? That helps to create a lifelong sense of purpose and wellbeing. And that’s the principle that drives health promotion in the seven Toronto Community Health Centres that run a program called Guys Can Cook! (GCC).


GCC serves teens and young men from low-income neighbourhoods. The program grew out of the Four Villages Community Health Centre and Davenport Perth Neighbourhood Community Health Centre pilot program, and is now a high-impact partnership between the Community Health Centres, as well as Toronto Public Health, Toronto Employment and Social Services, and West End Urban Health Alliance Nutrition Affiliate. The goals are to keep youth aged 13-24 healthier by giving them the tools and knowledge to live and eat better, thereby helping to avoid obesity and chronic diseases later on. But CHC dietitians and youth workers realized that classroom-type lessons wouldn’t work. So GCC asked the youth how they wanted to learn about nutrition, and the results paid off.

“Before I didn’t really eat vegetables and fruit so much, and now I eat them more,” says 13-year-old program participant Jose Emiliano Chamale Leiton, who was referred to GCC by his primary care provider at the Four Villages CHC. “The program helped me to better my knife skills, and now sometimes I cook at home.”

THE GUYS CAN COOK! RECIPE FOR SUCCESS

GCC draws on expertise from local community chefs, including George Brown College instructors, as well as CHC dietitians and youth workers, plus the support and encouragement of peer leaders. Delivered in Community Health Centre kitchens, the after-school workshops host 10-12 youth for seven weeks each year.


Chef Hubert Wysokinski teaches knife skills in the kitchen at Davenport Perth Neighbourhood CHC as part of the GCC program in 2016.

The sessions are designed to gain trust, hold interest, and teach them nutrition while imparting cooking skills. Impacts measured by program coordinators include increased nutrition knowledge levels, an increased sense of belonging, and exposure to positive role models. In addition, GCC opens up employment opportunities for participants: when the workshops wrap, youth can sign up for food handler training offered by Toronto Public Health and provided to program graduates free of charge. Food handler certification helps program graduates to score a part-time or summer gig. Nearly three-quarters of all GCC graduates have accessed the certification. 


Guys Can Cook! participants take part in a nutrition education workshop examining product labels at Davenport Perth Neighbourhood CHC in 2016.

LEARNING DISHES COOKED AT HOME, ALONGSIDE FRIENDS

Peer leaders, who’ve already graduated from GCC, are a newer piece of the program. As Jose puts it, seeing his peers made a big difference starting out: “My first experience was that I was feeling shy and nervous, but when I saw my friend was also in the program, I felt more comfortable.”

Youth also expressed that the program is a great place to make new friends and build relationships. While peer leadership and social opportunities for youth are only a couple of components of putting youth at the centre of GCC, they are considered key successes that address social isolation and the need for places and programs where youth feel they belong.

ENGAGING YOUTH DIRECTLY TO RESHAPE THE PROGRAM

“We had not initially asked youth how they want the contents of the program to be delivered,” says Julia Fursova, GCC’s project coordinator. “For example, what preferences they might have for the dishes that they would be learning how to cook.”

GCC’s organizers spoke to their young participants using open discussions and flip charts on how the program should evolve.

“We didn’t want the feedback survey to feel like homework or a test,” says Fursova.

The exchanges delivered results: a youth-informed cookbook the chef instructors could draw from, a list of dishes with cultural relevance to participants, which helped boost engagement in GCC’s program.

Teaching methods also got a makeover according to what these young men wanted: more games and competition.

“We have everything from Jeopardy! and nutrition bingo to comparing nutrition labels and asking the guys to bring in their own favourite menus to look at together,” says Cindy Lui, a registered dietitian for the GCC program. “Youth seem to absorb information so much better that way, and I was able to relate my nutrition lessons back to the recipes that we were making that day.”

For youth like Jose, the ability to access a program like GCC through his family’s primary care provider was crucial, because it was the staff dietitian, Lui, who made the connection after Jose was referred to Lui by a nurse practitioner at Four Villages CHC.

Now, Jose has a favourite dish to cook, one that many adults might even find intimidating to make: lasagna. More crucial than that to his future wellbeing, however, the eighth-grader has a new perspective on nutrition overall: “When we were not cooking during the program, we were talking about the foods and what they do for our body and stuff,” the eighth grader says. “I really learned a lot.”


Chef Kelly Ptashnik of George Brown College teaches cooking skills as part of GCC at Access Alliance MHCS in 2015.