Sunday, January 17, 2010

Teaching Kids to Appreciate Food – Andrew Kaplan of Yum-o!

Andrew Kaplan is Director of Rachael Ray’s Yum-o! non-profit organization.

“Food has an impact on everyone,” Andrew Kaplan tells me as we chat over coffee on a cold and dark winter evening in New York City. “Everyone’s got that story growing up – a smell they remember, a favorite dish their mother or father made, or a favorite restaurant in their town. It’s something everyone relates to and it brings people together.”

Growing up, food was central in Kaplan’s family. His father worked in the food industry and was a health enthusiast, and his mother got him involved in the kitchen at an early age.

“My mom was the chef of the family, so she always cooked, and I always watched her cook,” he says. “I’d sit on the chair and watch her, and help her stir and help her make something.”

Today, the CIA-trained chef creates familial connections to food for kids and parents across the country as Director of Rachael Ray’s Yum-o! foundation. Yum-o! has a three-part focus – Cook, Feed and Fund – with an overall mission of empowering kids and their families to develop healthy relationships with food and cooking.

Kaplan speaks thoughtfully about the work of Yum-o! There is a quiet tenacity and commitment evident as he talks about his work. At the center, is getting kids involved in the kitchen.

“That’s what got me interested in food. Let them stir a sauce, let them chop a little,” he says. “When you cook your own meal it’s healthier. You know what ingredients you’re using and what ingredients you’re putting into it.”

Kaplan has worked frequently with kids and he learned early on that ignorance about food and nutrition was complex and not simply defined by socio-economic factors. He recounts the story of a time – working in Miami – when he was preparing to take a group of underprivileged kids to a restaurant for a food experience they would not normally have. The owner of one establishment asked, “Why inner city or underprivileged kids? We’ve got the wealthiest kids in Miami right down the block and they don’t know crap about food.”

Sometime after, Kaplan was producing a cooking demonstration for Rachael Ray and they began talking about kids and food. Ray also started cooking at an early age, and grew up with a strong appreciation for the role of food in family life. “We had very similar visions and she expanded them more,” Kaplan says. Out of that discussion more than three-and-a-half years ago, Yum-o! took shape, and Kaplan moved to New York to start up the not-for-profit organization. The mission is extremely important to Ray. “Food is the way she gives back,” says Kaplan.

Issues of health and wellness in America certainly help to drive Yum-o! programming, but underlying it all is a steadfast belief that food is all about family and enjoyment.

“For us, it’s the joys of food and cooking – the fact that we’re motivated by it and we can share it with other people,” says Kaplan. “It’s making food fun for people, getting them into the kitchen, and in turn they’ll eat healthier and the obesity rate will go down.”
The philosophy extends to creating recipes where even the names inspire a smile. Kaplan cites Rachael Ray’s recipe for Buffalo Chicken Chili as a recipe with plenty of family-appeal that’s also wholesome, flavorful and easy to prepare. Fun recipe names get kids interested in cooking, get them involved in the kitchen, and get them to eat good food. There are hundreds of kid-friendly recipes available on the Yum-o! website, many contributed by members of the online community. There are also tips and tools, and stories about individuals and organizations making a difference through food and nutrition in local communities.
Yum-o! looks to reach kids where they eat. A partnership with the New York City Department of Education Office of SchoolFood focused on changing the image of cafeteria food, led to the creation of a delicious and nutritious Yum-o!-inspired lunch menu that was served last October in schools in all five boroughs. Nearly 700,000 meals were served to students and teachers who lined up for NYC Sizzling Soft Taco with Southwest Roasted Chicken and Corn Relish.
“This was a healthy meal that met the USDA and New York City SchoolFood guidelines, but they were so excited about it. That’s what food should be, food that kids get excited about,” says Kaplan. Plans are in development to work with other school districts in the future.
While cooking is the educational component, the Yum-o! platforms of Feed and Fund also address an overall relationship with food. Kaplan explains that there are over 13 million kids who go to sleep at night and wake up not knowing where their next meal is coming from. Yum-o! works to create awareness about the issue of hunger in America. He says the foundation has helped to feed well over a million people and Rachael Ray’s presence brings significant attention to the issue. “We’ve gotten letters from people that say I never knew the issue of hunger existed in America until I saw Rachael talking about it.”

Yum-o! also funds cooking scholarships for public school kids who aspire to a career in the food industry and has awarded nearly 30 scholarships for students who hope to cook professionally or manage a hotel or restaurant.
Kaplan has clearly found his calling and savors the organization’s power to transform. “I thought I had a lot to share and give back and teach people about food and cooking. One of the main ways that I wanted to make a difference was with kids.” He sees food and the dinner table as central to family life – a place where memories are created – and has set a scrumptious community table that allows him to share that experience with others.

“I still cook and love cooking, but I’d rather make a difference – serve if you will,” says Kaplan. “It’s changing lives one recipe at a time.”

Photos courtesy of Lisa Plotnik
©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Fresh Local and Best said...

The Yum-O organization and mission is quite impressive. I admire the philosophy and the impact that Kaplan and this organization is making. It's wonderful to see how successfully the consciousness of food is being raised among our youth.

Julia said...

It's so wonderful to see the trends towards getting kids more involved with food and good eating habits! First Anne Cooper and now Andrew. Thanks for sharing another interesting profile.

And questions from your other blog... what is the writer's conference in February that you speak of? And your favorite food blogger that's moving to Asia?

Kalyn said...

What a fun project, and could those kids possibly be any cuter? (I don't think so!)

My Carolina Kitchen said...

What a fabulous idea to teach kids to appreciate food. This was very informative, because I had no idea that Rachael was involved in something such as this. I clicked over to the Yum-O site and as soon as I finish typing this comment, I'm going back to learn more. Thanks T.W. for this great post.

A Feast for the Eyes said...

So many thoughts popped into my head, as I read this post. First, the kids expressions made me smile.
Second-- I'm so thrilled that these kids get a chance to learn that food doesn't necessarily come from the freezer section or drive-thru's. It's sad how many teenagers I've met at my job, who don't know how to cook! What a great organization and kudos to Rachael Ray. She was the person who gave me the confidence to buy a good knife, learn how to cook from scratch and now-- I wish I could teach more fearful cooks that it's not that hard! Great post!

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

It's great that Rachael Ray has partnered her resources with Andrew Kaplan's passion to chart the course of Yum-O. They're lucky to have found each other!

Velva said...

Thumbs up! This organization gives a healthy start to children.

~~louise~~ said...

What bed have I been sleeping under? I've never heard of this organization before.

Thank you so much for bringing Yum-O to my attention T.W. I must go investigate!!!

Helene said...

I've never heard of Yum-O. This sounds such like a great organization. Thanks for sharing.

Kathy said...

I'd never heard of Yum-O either. It's wonderful reading about how kids are learning to cook.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

What a terrific post this is, TW! We are so bombarded with stories of how terribly children eat these days, so it's exciting to see people committed to teaching kids to eat healthfully. I think it's so important for children to learn where their food comes from (not a box!) and to learn how to make food flavorful and fun yet still good for you. Kudos to Andrew and Rachel for their work.

Momgateway said...

This is great--get them cooking and eating healthy while they are young.

Ravenous Couple said...

thanks for letting us know about this organization! it's great to get kids involved in cooking early.

high low said...

What a great post! Thanks for letting me know about Yum-O. Those kids are so cute and look like they're having lots of fun!

Mary said...

Thanks so much for this fascinating interview. It's good to know about the foundation.

Jann said...

This is a wonderful project.......our kids need to know the value of good foods and how they can prepare them.Thanks for informing us!