Alexander Hennings started off his junior year at Blue Springs South High School wanting to be a chef. He enrolled in the culinary arts program at the Fort Osage Career and Technology Center with that goal in mind.

Alexander Hennings started off his junior year at Blue Springs South High School wanting to be a chef. He enrolled in the culinary arts program at the Fort Osage Career and Technology Center with that goal in mind.

But after a few months in the program, he decided to turn away from being a chef and make the new experience into more of a “healthy hobby.” The hobby impacted more than just himself. It changed the way his entire family thought about food.

“Before I took this class, I didn’t feel good with the food I was eating,” he said. “My family used to eat a lot and eat things that were not good for us. Now, we cook with healthy ingredients. My dad has lost over 100 pounds, and we feel better. We are serving as an example for others because we have changed the way we think and look at food.”

This is the fourth year for the culinary arts program at the Fort Osage CTC. It includes about 37 students from the Fort Osage, Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Oak Grove school districts who meet two and a half hours each day. The goal, said instructor Lisa Burgess, is to teach students about the culinary arts in a hands-on way.

“The real learning happens in the kitchen,” she said. “You can teach only so much out of a book. It has to be a combination class with hands-on learning at the same time.”

During the first two years of the program, Burgess admits, she taught right from the textbook and followed a set curriculum. Students did not even get into the kitchen in the first six weeks. But last year, she decided to use more of an industry curriculum and get students in the kitchen right away. Burgess also decided to weave the theme of nutrition throughout the curriculum, focusing on using fresh, local and seasonal ingredients.

“Students learn better in the kitchen,” she said. “I think it is also important to emphasize using local food and organic if we can get it. There is such a high rate of degenerative disorders such as Type II Diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We have to start addressing this issue with food. Food is the vehicle we need to use to learn to live a healthier lifestyle.”

Maddie Moore, a senior at Blue Springs South, is a second year student in the program. She said she has always loved food and loved to cook. But learning about how to cook in a healthy way has been the most interesting part of the class.

“I have not always been a healthy eater,” she said. “I think what I have learned most is that healthy cooking does not mean you lose the flavor. It is all about moderation and using sugar and fat in the right ways. It has all been amazing.”

Throughout the year-long program, students learn about preparation timelines, the cost of food, sanitation, cooking and safety guidelines. There is also a communication aspect that has surprised some.

“I definitely think my communication has improved,” said Celeste Cruz, a senior from Blue Springs High School. “I have learned that while speaking is important, listening is as well. We need to be open and listen to other team members’ ideas. I have become a leader in this class, which really is a neat experience.”

The program is not all about learning. It is also a working kitchen. The CTC’s culinary arts program caters events throughout the year. Burgess said the dishes are made from scratch, using fresh, local ingredients. She said nutrition goes into every aspect of planning the menu from discussing what nutrients and vitamins are in each ingredient to how those ingredients can be used to not only enhance the flavor, but bring out the most nutritional qualities.

“Everything we serve has a nutritional component to it,” she said. “The first priority is that the food has to taste good, but we also need to have a balanced, nutritional meal. I believe the way this country can end its current epidemic is in school through food. We need teach kids how to understand their food and that a diet of processed foods will eventually make them sick. These are skills the students will use through the rest of their lives.”