Program highlights Black chefs while teaching families how to cook

Through live cooking classes, the program highlights Madison-area Black chefs and utilizes locally grown produce in meal kits for free of charge.
Meal Kit Box
Courtesy of Pasture and Plenty

Pasture and Plenty is partnering with Madison Metropolitan School District’s Black Excellence program to offer a third session of virtual cooking classes for Madison students this October. With live cooking classes every Thursday in October, the program highlights Madison-area Black chefs and utilizes locally grown produce in meal kits for free of charge.

The program — which currently has a waitlist for October but will be offered again next June — was inspired by research that came out of the Forum for Youth Investment which says that six out of 10 youth would not be ready for life by the age of 21, says program founder Prenicia Clifton. “One of the skills they didn’t have was cooking,” says Clifton.

Clifton, the founder of Seein’ is Believin’, an organization that focuses on life readiness workshops, also volunteers on MMSD’s Black Excellence committee. Two years ago when Clifton first suggested the idea of a cooking class for MMSD students it was meant to teach basic cooking skills but the class took on new meaning during the pandemic. “We realized it could serve as a social emotional resource for children by providing a sense of altruism,” Clifton says. “Providing one day a week where children could cook meals for their parents, if their parents were working multiple jobs or sick, the Black Excellence cooking class also gave children the skills to support their families during a trying time.” Another important component of the cooking classes is that they are led by Black chefs. “I am a classically trained opera singer and I didn’t think I could do it until I saw Jessye Norman doing it,” Clifton says. “When the children saw that there were Black chefs running successful restaurants, the children were really inspired. It’s rare for children to say they want to do something unless they see somebody who looks like them doing it.”

Jenina Mella, Pasture and Plenty’s Community Eats program manager, helps coordinate the guest chefs and weekly meal kits that include everything the students will need to prepare each week’s meal. Kits are assembled and delivered midday on Thursdays before the live cooking class begins on Zoom at 4 p.m. Mella says the program is very much in line with Pasture and Plenty’s mission of making local food accessible. “Pasture [strives] to create connections to the local food system within the community,” she says.

Mella says that after feedback from families, October’s weekly cooking lessons will feature meals from around the world. “They want it to be a faux travel experience,” she says. Angela Morgan of Food Junkies will be cooking an Indian dish featuring wilted spinach and kale. Kingsley Gobourne of Artemis Provisions will prepare a Jamaican-inspired meal including a pumpkin soup with local squash. Renesha Carter of Rooted will showcase a Tex-Mex meal. Mo Cheeks, founder of micro-bakery Bread & Justice, will demonstrate pizza.

In addition to the cooking classes and meal kits, the program also provides virtual farm “field trips” and will include science segments that focus on the chemistry of cooking; for Cheeks’ pizza class students will learn about the science of dough. While the October class is currently full, Pasture and Plenty hopes to receive donations to be able to offer more free meal kits to families (all students who sign sign up for the course’s waiting list will be able to participate digitally).

Clifton says the program has had a great impact on students and families. “Families have [told us] this has brought them closer together,” Clifton says. “We hear parents say ‘I never knew my child wanted to cook, I never knew my child could cook.’” Clifton also tells the story of one young girl who took the first class and has been growing food and cooking for her family every week ever since. “Children [are] so grateful to be able to do something for their families during this time,” she says.

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