The small kitchen bustles with activity as cooks crowd around the counter dicing and slicing meats and vegetables for soups and salads. The air is thick with the aroma from baking pastries and frying patties. On the counter, people are rolling dough and flour for hand-prepared laghman noodles. However, there is not the usual kitchen banter among these cooks as they make their delicious creations. Heard above the sound of ingredients sizzling as they hit the pan is a loud is an in-depth discussion about the nutritional value of the ingredients.
These cooks are from local kindergartens throughout Kyrgyzstan, and they have the important job of helping students reach their optimal growth and development by making satisfying, nourishing meals.
Currently 36 percent of households in Kyrgyzstan are considered to be food-insecure, and almost 30 percent of Kyrgyz children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition. Unfortunately, kindergarten cooks are faced with the challenge of preparing nutritious food on a limited budget of only $0.70 per child, and this past year food prices in Kyrgyzstan increased by 32 percent — the highest rate among all former Soviet States.
Mercy Corps Kyrgyzstan’s Food for Education (FFE) project, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, recently held our first master-class training seminar on childhood nutrition for cooks and school directors of local kindergartens. These “training-of-trainers” workshops are conducted so that upon completion, the participants return and hold similar workshops for all those involved in kindergarten nutrition in their respective districts.
The goal for this day-long training was to provide participants with information on how to serve children healthier menu options from dishes made with inexpensive, easy-to-find local ingredients that are rich with vitamins and minerals. Participants were shown how to prepare dishes from carbohydrate and protein-rich foods like beans, peas, oats, rice, flour and nuts. Some of the cooks said that they had never before cooked with beans, an ingredient that is packed with fiber and protein.
Creativity with food preparation was also introduced, as aesthetic appeal is an important element to consider when preparing food for young children. By the end of the training session, the dining table was covered with tasty dishes including stuffed peppers with grated vegetables, meatball soup, pastries and tartlets bursting with fruit and jam.
A result of these trainings were new approaches to how to meet nutritional needs at their schools, and innovative ideas for recipes and food preparation were introduced to school kitchen employees. This exchange of ideas and techniques culminated in a regional ‘cook-off,’ where these kindergarten cooks competed to produce the best tasting and most nutritional meal. The energy and intensity expected on a TV show was felt by all at the cook-off: cooks had limited time and specific ingredients with which to prepare their meals, all-the-while being watched and photographed by many eager on-lookers.
While there could be only one “top chef,” the kindergarteners are the real winners here.