At this school, the food is part of the curriculum

By , Assistant photo editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Is an avocado a fruit or a vegetable? Is it grown above or below ground, or up in trees? Why is it good for you? The answer to these questions and many others can be learned at the Kids' Cookery School in Acton, here in the London borough of Ealing.

It was founded in 1995 in the home kitchen of Fiona Hamilton-Fairley, who worried that her children would never learn to cook as part of their school curriculum.

Since 2000, the Kids' Cookery School has taught more than 13,000 students ages 3 to 16. Over the course of a school term or during holiday workshops, students learn about cooking, nutrition, hygiene, and food safety.

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"Every child in this country needs to learn how to cook," Ms. Hamilton-Fairley says.

On an early fall morning, the school is buzzing with activity as nine students from Acton High School prepare spiced pasties (pronounced PASS-teez, they're equivalent to "hot pockets" in North America) from scratch.

After kneading the dough, students swarm to the instruction table to choose ingredients to go in them.

But before they round up peppers, tomatoes, celery, corn, cheese, ham, and other items, Chef John Fernandez reads over a poster of the food pyramid.

How many fruits and vegetables should you eat a day and how many in a serving, he asks the students. "And after whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy, comes protein, such as ...?"

"Tuna fish!" Abdul Amalou quickly responds.

A professional chef who turned in his overworked hotel apron, Mr. Fernandez loves teaching kids the cooking skills he learned at a young age in his Portuguese family.

"It's not about the final product," he says of what the kids learn. It is about "not being afraid of cooking.... A generation skipped over learning how to cook." And he wants to make sure the current generation can feed itself with good, home-prepared food.

One reason for the absence of cooking skills among this generation is that grandparents and other members of the extended family are no longer living in one home, Ms. Hamilton-Fairley believes. More people live alone today. And because they have never learned how to cook, they depend on readily available takeout foods and prepared supermarket foods that may contain too much sugar and fat.

Nowadays, she notes, instead of gathering around the dinner table, families eat in front of the television. "If you put eating properly [up against] PlayStation, PlayStation always wins," she says. With her cooking school, she hopes to change that.

Back at their cooking stations, the kids' pasties are overflowing. "I want to be a professional chef," Nadeerali Khan proudly asserts. "Every day I learn recipes to take home. My family really likes it, and they want me to come every day [instead of once a week]."

As the students chop their vegetables, Chef Fernandez reminds them of the hazards of using knives. And he does it in a way they can relate to: "If you ruin a mushroom, you can go to the shop and buy another one," he says. "But can you buy another finger?"

The message is received as students yell out, "No!"

After the pasties are put in the oven, it is time to move on to dessert – fruit-pastry spirals. The students and chef repeat the lesson of learning about ingredients that will go into what they prepare – a choice of dates, figs, cranberries, and raspberries.

After preparation and baking, the golden-brown spirals come out of the oven, and students are offered the option of sprinkling them with powered sugar if they want. No one refuses.

Then the kids clean up their kitchen stations and pack the food they've made to take to school for lunch. They will soon taste the fruits of their three-hour labors, and they will take with them all the lessons they have learned.

Thanks to the Kids' Cookery School, this is one group of kids who will grow up knowing their way around the supermarket and the kitchen. Not only will they always have something delicious and nutritious to eat, but they can feed their friends and family, too.

Commenting on his experience, Nadeerali says: "Anyone who wants to come, they can come. It's the best place."

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