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Black Excellence Program, Pasture and Plenty to offer four-week virtual cooking experience taught by local Black chefs in June

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Young people prepare herb meatballs and soba noodles salad with seasonal vegetables in a previous Black Excellence cooking series. (Photo: Pasture & Plenty)

During the month of June, Madison-area students will be able to participate in a free, four-week virtual cooking experience taught by outstanding Madison-area Black chefs with diverse food careers. The Youth Black Excellence Life Readiness Meal Kit & Cooking Class Program, launched in 2020 as an MMSD Youth Black Excellence initiative program and created by Prenicia Clifton of Seein’ is Believin’ in collaboration with Pasture and Plenty, is continuing the program with the support of Rooted, the USDA and Wisconsin DATCP Farm to School Grant funding.

The four-week Black Excellence Life Readiness Virtual Cooking Classes and Meal Kit program is available to students from 3rd to 12th grades. Each week, students will prepare the ingredients from a meal kit delivered to their homes along with an outstanding local Black leader in food, agriculture and wellness from the Madison area in a virtual cooking class.

“There will be four different recipes, all curated by the Black chefs in the area. They will send out all the recipes and all the ingredients ahead of time. The kids come live on Zoom and cook with the chefs, but we also send them a recording because sometimes the kids can’t always keep up with the pace,” program founder Prenicia Clifton tells Madison365. Clifton is the founder of Seein’ is Believin’, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing mental health and life readiness resources to Madison-area youth. “Usually one meal pack feeds four people in the family. So if the family has eight people in the household, then we send them two meal kits. We really do make it so they can provide for their whole family for one night during that week for four weeks.”

Dr. Fabu Phillis Carter

Chef instructors for the series will include Dr. Fabu Phillis Carter, Ruthanna Hutton-Okpalaeke, Renesha Carter and Alex Booker. Qwantese Dourese Winters will serve as a host and field guy, as will Booker. Jerrod Buckner will be the kitchen scientist.

This program was one of Clifton’s first initiatives out of Seein’ is Believin’ mental health programming during the pandemic.

“We started this during the pandemic when the kids’ mental health was struggling and all of these kids were too young at that point to be out there protesting [after George Floyd’s murder] and they were at home feeling helpless,” Clifton remembers. “At the same time, The Forum for Youth Investment was putting out research about how all of these kids — six out of 10 — weren’t ready for life by the age of 21. And the number-one skill that they were falling short of was cooking. 

“Some of the kids had never cooked in their lives and it was coming to fruition during the pandemic when people couldn’t afford to go out all the time, restaurants were closed, and families were struggling to figure out how to feed their families and actually having to cook,” Clifton says. “So our goal was to create this program under the lens of Black Excellence with MMSD.”

To launch the program, Clifton was able to find a willing partner in Pasture and Plenty.

“We partnered with Pasture and Plenty and the first round I think we had maybe 40-50 kids and the families were super excited,” Clifton remembers. But it soon became much more than just cooking. “It became about kitchen chemistry. It became about improving literacy skills and math skills and all that kind of stuff because they had to work through the recipes together with their families. We even started seeing these families’ literacy improve, too, because, all of a sudden, these adults are having to read directions and ask questions… so it was really just a great gift to the community.”

Pasture & Plenty owner Christy McKenzie tells Madison365 she was happy to partner with Clifton on this enterprise and fondly remembers when it first started in May 2020.

“Prenicia reached out and asked if Pasture & Plenty could support the Black Excellence initiative of MMSD in creating a new type of cooking program for youth for that initiative because before the pandemic they used to get together and do cooking classes and potluck clubs at schools that served anywhere from like 8 to 12 families at a time,” Clifton says.

“Prenicia is so visionary. She took the pandemic changes in how we couldn’t get together and really made it into something cool. She reached out and said, ‘Could you help me figure out a way to get meal kits out to students to provide youth in the community and their families high-quality locally sourced meals and could you help me produce a cooking class that explores curriculum around food, provides agency within our youth and provide these families respite?'”

The concept was really broad, but McKenzie says she loved Clifton’s vision and the impact that it could make for youth and families.

“For me as a food business owner at that moment, we were both navigating the changes that it meant to close down our dining room and to not have events and catering happening in the same way and really thinking about our meal kit program and the work that we already did to serve people at home,” she remembers. “We were thinking how we could expand that and grow it to continue to keep our team working and to continue to commit to purchasing from local farms.”

Students from the 2020 June Black Excellence cooking series preparing herb meatballs and soba noodles salad with seasonal vegetables.

The initial program ran for 18 months and was supported by school district funds. The program was able to expand after they were able to secure USDA funding. A recent $21,600 grant in March from the Farm to School Council, through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, helps to make the program free for students in programs running in June and October of this year.

“We did the work to find USDA funding to continue the program and that covers about 50 percent of the program costs for each session,” McKenzie says. “We’ve done an enormous amount of development work with local organizations like UW Health and MGE [Madison Gas & Electric] and Nordic [Consulting] have committed community-giving dollars to help the program to expand the number of students and families that have been interested in participating in it.”

For the upcoming Black Excellence Life Readiness Virtual Cooking Classes in June, McKenzie says, they will be exploring themes of wellness, nutrition science and food as fuel, and the connection of land, wellness and nourishment. Clifton adds that she hopes “every youth has the opportunity to experience this amazing program.”

Online registration for the four-week Youth Black Excellence program is now open. Meal kits are delivered on Thursday afternoons directly to students’ homes, and each meal kit feeds a family of 4-5 (larger families will receive 2 meal kits). Class dates are Thursdays  June 6, 13, 20, and 27. The class runs from 5:15-6:30 p.m

Registration closes on Monday, June 3, at 5 p.m. Volunteers are always needed to support the Youth Black Excellence Life Readiness Cooking Class program. To volunteer, click here.