“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
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