The Person Behind: The Teen Chef Program

More and more studies have proven that eating healthily has a huge impact not only on your body, but also your mind.  Although a relatively new area of study, nutritional psychology explores the impact different foods have on cognition, focus, and mental health. A recent such study further impressed upon the importance of diet during critical periods of development, with high consumption of fruit and vegetables being able to combat cognitive defects and effect memory. It makes sense in theory, but what about in practice?

“the importance of diet during critical periods of development…”

Convenience, cost, time, and education are all factors which greatly influence our food decisions. The more we learn about healthy food and the more exposed we are to it, the more likely we’re mindful about our choices. At the Delaware Ave branch, Librarian Kristine Schultz and Library Assistant Lexi Consler have created a program which endeavors to do just that, focusing on having fun, feeding, and educating younger patrons through a popular program called Teen Chef . Thanks to donations to the Annual Appeal, the Albany Public Library Foundation has been able to fund Teen Chef as a regular monthly program.

Both Lexi and Kristine were kind enough to sit down with us to tell us more….

Thank you for speaking with us today! Can you both tell us a bit about your background?

Kristine: I completed my undergraduate degree in journalism but decided to switch to librarianship in grad school when I realized research is what I really enjoy. I just love learning!  Libraries are all about getting information out and packaging it in different ways, so it felt like a great match for me. Sometimes I write, sometimes I make flyers and displays, and a lot of the time I get to do research. In the past I’ve thought if someone would pay me to be a student, I’d take that job. Being a librarian feels like that.

Lexi: I have a bachelor’s degree in Music Industry. I originally wanted to be a promoter, so I worked at several nightclubs and music venues for a couple of years before I moseyed my way to the library and started working with the teen population. 

How long have you both been here?

K: I worked for 7 years as a reference librarian in Parsippany NJ. When I moved back home to the Capital Region, I worked for 2 years at Round Lake Library before becoming a librarian at APL, where I’ve been for the last 6 years. I do a lot of adult reference, but specialize in children’s materials and programming. I like working at a branch where I can work with both adults and children without having to pick one or the other.

L: I’ve been with the APL for 6 years, bouncing around different branches. I started at Howe and was there for three years, then at North Albany for two, and most recently I came here to Delaware.

What do you like most about your job?

K: I like connecting people with resources and knowing that in some small way, I’ve helped make their world bigger and broadened their horizons. If someone walks in with some sort of information need,  I can help make a positive impact on their life.  People come in here with big questions and little questions, and they’re all important in some way.

L: Mine is more teen-centric. I like bonding and creating relationships with teens, making them feel like they have a safe area to be in and an adult they can talk to. I like teaching different crafts and life skills, and just spending time with them. That’s definitely a high point – just getting to know them and seeing them grow.

People come in here with big questions and little questions, and they’re all important in some way”

Let’s talk about the Teen Chef Program. How long has it been running?

L: Teen chef has been running here since January of last year, but I’ve been doing food related programs with kids at different libraries for a while now. I used to do ‘Edible Crafternoon’ at North Albany where we would make crafts out of food, but this is more based on real life skills.  I wanted a teen-friendly, hands-on experience for this program. 

Budding chefs experimenting with pancakes…
What inspired you to come up with a something that focused on teens and a healthy relationship with food?

L: It definitely stemmed from the kids coming in here and being hungry or eating what I consider junk food. I wanted to show them healthier alternatives and help them understand why the things they were eating were making them feel tired and not so great. I also wanted them to know that just because something is healthy, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s expensive or difficult to make. I think that’s the most important part – creating something they can replicate at home and share with their family.

K: Research shows that kids who are hungry or aren’t eating healthy foods are impacted negatively in both their physical and cognitive development. But we don’t need science to tell us that – it’s common sense that we should be encouraging kids to be more healthy.

Is this a popular program at the branch?

K: It’s become a very established program. Lexi has a core group of teens who all know her – she’s essentially the the ‘teen Shepard’ here. She gives them boundaries, which is what they need as they’re not quite adults yet! They want to know the library is a safe place they can hang out in with their friends. Lexi really creates a positive environment, taking them under her wing and figuring out what programs appeal to them. 

L: With the help of the grant, we’ve been able to do the program once a month. I have a philosophy when I work with teens that I want them to feel welcomed and like they have a friend here, but they also have to be respectful. It’s important for them to understand why there are boundaries. Rules without a rationale behind them seem unfair, but if you explain the reasons why, they tend to accept it and feel more mature as a consequence of that. It also helps them to have an adult here who they’re comfortable talking with. They might’ve had a bad day and want to discuss it with someone – you can be that person.

What does the program consist of?

L: I’ll introduce the item we’re making, go over the recipe together, then assign tasks. They take it very seriously – we all wear aprons and call each other chef while we figure it out together! It’s a real learning experience,  and it encourages them to experiment with different flavors, textures, and recipes – for example when we made buttermilk pancakes we tried them plain, then added different ingredients to see which we preferred.  They certainly come up with some wacky flavors! 

Teen Chef is a  STEM program. Why are these type of skills important, especially for teenagers?

L: STEM programs like Teen Chef are important because they give the teens a way to interact with their hands as well as with their minds. A lot of STEM is directed at computers, whereas cooking is more physically active. You still have mathematics and science, but it’s a hands-on experience that helps them focus and build their life skills too. Cooking something together is a bonding experience, and I want the kids to experience that.

Overall, I want to provide them with healthy alternatives. We’re not telling them to never eat chips again, but just to be more educated in their choices and opt to have certain foods only occasionally. Teens are always looking for ways to improve themselves and feel more grown-up; cooking is a great way for them to that. 

I want them to feel inspired and empowered”

K: This is everyday science and math to put in their memory bank. They’re being exposed to new foods and how to prepare them, so when they do become independent and go to college or move into their first apartment, they have options. 

What do you hope for the teens to gain from this experience?

L: I want them to feel inspired and empowered. I want them to go to the store knowing what the healthy choice is, and then decide if that’s the way they want to go. Most importantly, I want them to be able to take this knowledge away with them – to go home to their parents and say, “Look what I’ve learnt to make”.

Can you sum up the program in three words?

L: Tasty, real, and fun. 

Are you an avid chef yourself?

L: I love to cook! I love watching cooking shows and bringing home cookbooks and challenging myself. There’ve been many failures but that’s how you get better. My mother is a very experimental and avant garde with her cooking, but I’m not quite on her level yet!

K: I love to cook too. I was part-time for two and half years, so I did a lot of cooking. Then I became full time again, so I’m working on trying to fit it in when I can.

Are you involved in any future programs you want to tell us about?

L: More teen programs! On Nov 20th we’re making 100 paper cranes that we’re going to thread together to create a garland. Then in December we’re making paper wreaths using withdrawn teen books. In January we’ll be doing life size ‘Connect 4‘ – we did life-size Pac Man back in September and the kids loved it. We also bought a Bloxels kit that teaches them how to make an original 8-bit video game – another fun STEM program.

K: I just wanted to mention the other great food program we have in the library. Before Lexi started Teen Chef, we already had one well-established program for kids and teens called Food, Fun, and Fitness. I implemented it because I wanted to offer some nutritious food options and educate the kids more about their health. It’s run by Siobhan A’Hearn, who’s a Community Nutrition Educator from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County. She comes once a month and introduces the kids to all sorts of new foods. You’d be surprised by how limited some of their diets are – some had never even seen let alone tried avocado, kiwis or pineapples. What’s special about Siobhan is that not only does she feed everyone, she also sneaks in information and nutritional education at the same time. 

Since she started working with us here a couple of years ago, Siobhan’s involvement has spread throughout other branches. This is most notable in a collaboration with Howe and their garden club, which was secured through Capital RootsThey’re hopefully aiming to start getting more families involved in early January this year to make the most out of the gardening season. 

How do you come up with ideas for your programs?

K: I do a lot of talking with the patrons to find out what their interests and hobbies are. 

L: I ask the teens and tweens what they’re into and find out what programs they’ve enjoyed in the past. Teen Chef was one of the biggest ones they wanted to do. A lot of them also love crafts – we’ve made Pop-Tart and doughnut pillows and will be making felt foxes in January.  I don’t think they do a lot of Home Ec. anymore in schools, which is a shame as it’s a good creative outlet for them.  They sit and listen all day, so when they come here, I want them to learn in a different way. 

 

If you think your teen is a budding chef, sign up for December’s Energy Bites class now!

If you’d like to support programs like this,  give to the Annual Appeal!

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