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Cooking and nutrition programs for male youth: A recipe for success

January 4, 2017

Please note that below is a repost (with slight adaptations) of an earlier blog post Cooking and nutrition programs for male youth: A recipe for success featured on the HC Link website and was originally published here.

The Guys Can Cook! (GCC) program is a health promotion initiative for teenage, male, youth focused on food skills development. The three years of GCC project delivery resulted in the development of the program model that offers youth informed approach to program development and implementation, and is rooted in food justice and anti-oppression frameworks. As the three year project is coming to an end the GCC! project team is eager to share the key learning experiences that occurred over the three years of program implementation. During the upcoming GCC! webinar the interdisciplinary team of professionals will share lessons learned on youth engagement, food justice, and participatory evaluation. We will also share a variety of resources for program implementation, such as GCC! Program Curricular and Cookbook, including templates for interactive Nutrition Games. The upcoming webinar will be actively promoted through the Nutrition Resource Centre list serve. In the meantime, we would like to share our reflections on our journey with the GCC! Project.

In 2013 a group of registered dietitians and health promoters passionate about healthy food, cooking, health education and community, envisioned a cooking and nutrition program targeting male youth age 13 to 18. The project proposal had been spearheaded by the Nutrition Affiliate of the West End Urban Health Alliance (WEUHA) after a successful pilot program implemented at The Four Villages Community Health Centre. In January 2014, the proposal secured funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) to fund GCC! project – a three year initiative across seven community health centers in West Toronto.

The GCC! project was envisioned as a community-based program in response to the multiple challenges experienced by male youth from priority neighborhoods in relation to food security, nutrition, employment and a sense of belonging in the community. GCC! offers youth an opportunity to experience a skill-building program in a peer-supported interactive environment.

The project is a product of interdisciplinary collaboration between seven community health centers, Toronto Public Health, and Toronto Employment and Social Services, and has been funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation over the period from March 2014 to February 2017. As an interdisciplinary program, GCC! brings together registered dietitians, chef instructors and community youth workers. Chef Instructors lead main cooking activities introducing guys to the art of slicing, chopping, pivoting, sautéing, braising and other secrets of the trade. Registered Dietitians impart important information about nutrition but they don’t simply serve dry theory and facts. Dry theory turns into mouth-watering snacks, and facts take an interesting turn during interactive nutrition games developed exclusively for the GCC! program. Contests and competitions also add some spice to nutrition education! To keep all this energy flowing into positive direction requires special skills and this is why the involvement of the Youth Workers and/or Health Promoters is absolutely vital for the program. To further support youth engagement, program graduates are invited to join as Peer Leaders in the following years. They provide important mentoring support and bring in an important “bro factor”.

The three years of partnership and collaboration between community dietitians, chefs, health promoters and youth workers resulted in a complex and flavourful dish. During these exciting years we had an opportunity for ongoing dialog with program participants and partners to inform program development and refine program model. Continuous reflection on our challenges and successes supported by feedback from program participants and partners, allowed us to perfect the recipe for success when implementing cooking and nutrition program for male youth.

Here are some key highlights of what we learned during our journey:

  • Youth engagement is vital at the every step of the program planning and implementation. Don’t just ask program participants what they liked and what they didn’t at the end of the program but find ways to involve youth into program planning, outreach, program preparation, activities development, testing of program materials and final evaluation. This can be done through opening various communication channels, including informal and semi-formal discussions, anonymous feedback cards, with volunteers, surveys, regular check in sessions and conversations with peer leaders and volunteers. 
  • Setting clear boundaries from the start is of an utmost importance for processes involving multiple partners. Just like in a recipe involving many ingredients it is important to have clear instructions for the amount of each ingredient and cooking times, the “program recipe” involving multiple partners also needs clear parameters defining each program component, the program scope, and participating partners’ roles and responsibilities.
  • Clarifying expectations when maintaining dialog with program participants and partners lowers risk for possible disappointments and misunderstandings. It is particularly relevant during and after program evaluation when partners and participants’ input is solicited to inform program development. Acknowledge the value of all suggestions but also acknowledge the limits in relation to the project scope. Explain what suggestions are realistic and what suggestions are outside the program scope or organization capacity. Use such conversations as teachable moments by clarifying what suggestions are outside the program’s scope and mandate. For example, when soliciting input from the program participants regarding core recipes and snacks we would hear now and then “French Fries!”, “Doughnuts!”, etc. At this point we would take time to explain that recipes made during GCC! workshops should follow healthy eating guidelines, and propose healthier alternatives. 
  • Keep nutrition education hands-on and interactive. Education should never rely exclusively on lecturing, and especially within community-based afterschool program for teenagers. Keep the activities short and sweet to accommodate participants’ attention span and energy levels. Remember that guys come to the program after school and they look for an opportunity to spend their leisure time in a less structured environment. Adapt exercises to “pen and paper” format to provide a break from numerous screen-based activities, and ask guys to put away their electronic devices. Always include interactive and hands-on activities. Award participation with some small prizes to encourage engagement.

Figure 1. Do and Don’t of Nutrition Education Activities 

  • Meet them where they are – when teaching new skills start with what participants already know and connect the new information with the context of participants’ everyday lives. Although GCC! curricular adheres to a certain sequence of topics and recipes, input from the participants is solicited to inform what core recipes and snacks will be prepared during the program. When soliciting the input we connect with participants’ cultural backgrounds by asking what foods they prefer to eat, what meals are served at home, and what are their favourite dishes or snacks they would like to learn how to cook. We discuss availability and affordability of ingredients, and through such discussions we aim to re/connect participants with local food systems, such as local Farmers Markets, Good Food Markets, community gardens and other food related resources in the neighbourhood.
  • Meet them where they are again! Bring the additional training opportunities to the neighbourhood. Organizing additional training opportunities, such as Food Handler training for participants also benefits from “meeting them where they are” approach. This time we meet them “where they are” quite literally, in its geographical sense. Employment Skills Workshop and Food Handler trainings are provided to GCC! program graduates as a bonus and are organised at each partnering community health centre to ensure everyone is able to access the training opportunity in their own neighbourhood. 
  • Take them further, by developing their skills, building capacities and encouraging leadership. This requires continuous mentoring and support. By connecting and partnering with other youth focused programs, or further developing youth program at your agency ensure that youth has access to a space that would continue providing them with an opportunity to come together and participate in creating and sharing meals, and bonding in a positive environment.

The key components of the GCC! program model that enable youth participation and engagement are reflected in the info-graphic below. The info-graphic was developed for the GCC! Project presentation at the Resetting The Table National Assembly organised by Food Secure Canada in October 2016.
Figure 2: Food Justice Framework in Action: Guys Can Cook! Program

Guys Can Cook! project partners:

     The Four Villages Community Health Centre
     Davenport Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Centre
     Parkdale Community Health
     Centre Stonegate Community Health Centre
     Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services
     Unison Health and Community Services
     LAMP Community Health Centre
     Toronto Public Health
     Toronto Employment and Social Services
     West End Urban Health alliance Nutrition Affiliate

The project is generously funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.


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