Essential Needs and Dining Services team up to demo cooking skills for students

Contact: Kaitlynn Boot

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—To address the healthy food access barriers students face, the Essential Needs Food Pantry and Dining Services performed cooking skills demonstrations. The pilot program, which was made possible through grant funding from the American Heart Association (AHA) and United Healthcare, teaches functional cooking skills and accessible, nutritious recipes to students.  

Chef Andrew Francisco designed an easy chicken quesadilla recipe to demonstrate cooking techniques to students.

Chef Andrew Francisco, associate director of culinary operations, developed the recipe and led the demos on March 21 and April 4 at the WMU Student Center’s Demo Kitchen. Students at both demos learned how to make a chicken quesadilla with pico de gallo and a warm bean salsa, a meal chosen based on the regular availability of ingredients at the Essential Needs Food Pantry. Canned chicken, canned pinto beans, canned diced tomatoes, canned corn and block cheese were supplemented with affordable fresh produce purchased for the demo. 

“Canned food has a bad rep of not being healthy or tasty,” says Donielle Easlick, program manager for Essential Needs. “It was our hope that this recipe and demonstration would show the students that they can make a healthy, delicious meal out of canned food items that they can get at the food pantry. 

“Chef Andrew talked about rinsing canned vegetables before using them to help reduce the sodium. We also provided a cheese grater and demonstrated how to grate block cheese instead of purchasing bagged shredded cheese. Both tips will help students save money and add health benefits to their meals.”  

A variety of basic culinary and health and safety techniques were also covered during the demos, including washing hands, wearing gloves and using different cutting techniques. Students learned how to sauté, sear, plate and garnish before sampling the finished product, with opportunities to ask questions at each stage of the event.  

A grant from the American Heart Association and United Healthcare allowed Essential Needs to purchase take-home cooking kits for students who attended the demo.

“The explanations of many parts (of the demo) were super helpful for all cooking,” an attendee noted in their post-event evaluation. “I have no formal cooking knowledge, so this was insightful.”  

The grant funds also allowed for the purchase of take-home cooking kits for students who signed up. Each kit contained basic kitchen necessities, including a wooden spoon and spatula, vegetable peeler, can opener, potholder and strainer.  

For Chef Francisco, the most important goal of the demos was to introduce students to cooking in a nonintimidating environment.

“The best parts were seeing the students excited about cooking, seeing them get excited about the cooking kit provided by (Essential Needs) and showing them the completed meal with a nice plate presentation,” he says. 

Western staff members have already begun discussions about future collaborations and hope to continue offering cooking demos using food pantry staples next year.

“We are very appreciative of the collaboration with Essential Needs and the WMU Student Center that made this event possible,” says Emily Hazel Mitchell, associate director of communication and nutrition. “We hope to implement a variety of different types of programming within the Demo Kitchen, but a cooking skills demonstration (is) exactly the type of programming that this space was envisioned for.”  

“We are so grateful to the AHA and United Healthcare for their support and helping us actualize our dream,” says Easlick. “I hope we can continue to secure funding through grants and donors that will allow us to provide both the demonstrations and cooking kits to students. We know that there is a need and desire from our students for this resource, and I’m hopeful we will continue to find sponsors to support it.”  

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