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South County Career Center juniors cook up a win in culinary competition

RUSKIN — Two budding student chefs who are part of the culinary arts program at the South County Career Center have their sights set on becoming state and national champions.

Juniors Nina Currie, 16, and Veronika Alvarado, 17, represented the school last month when they competed in an awards program focusing on children and healthy, "kid-friendly" snacks, sponsored by the Family, Career & Community Leaders of America (FCCLA), a national vocational organization for students in the food service industry. The pair took home the title in the occupational category.

The victory sparked pride at the career center, which specializes in helping youth who don't fit in at traditional schools and risk dropping out.

"Not every kid fits the same mold, but they're good kids," principal Sandra Bailey said. When they come here, they shine and become leaders who can compete.

"They just grow so much and they start believing in themselves, which is the key to making it all work, because they never did before."

Currie and Alvarado, with the help and inspiration of their culinary arts teacher, Felicia Harris, created an interactive project for the competition to show 3- and 4-year-old children how to make nutritional snacks using foods molded into fun shapes and designs kids could put together.

The goal was to get them thinking about nutrition in a hands-on way that also incorporated preparing and cooking food safely.

"I got involved in this competition because my younger sister is on the verge of obesity," said Alvarado, who dreams of becoming an executive or personal chef after she graduates and gets her certificate. "I want to figure out what I can do to help my sister because she gets bullied about her weight. Now, I watch everything she eats."

The young chefs and their fellow culinary students hosted a Christmas party in early December for 42 Ruskin Elementary Early Exceptional Learning Center preschoolers and their parents.

They gave the kids gifts and then separated the students and their parents into groups and individually demonstrated how to prepare snacks in the shapes of a butterfly and a sailboat.

They used apple slices, pretzels, a carrot and raisins as the wings, antennae and body of the butterfly, and turkey bologna, a carrot and a half cheese slice for the sailboat.

"Kids get bad habits so hopefully we helped them start eating better at an early age and we also showed them how to cook safely at home without using a hot stove," Currie said.

Afterward, Alvarado and Currie handed out a small survey to see if the children learned anything, and whether they would make the snacks at home.

The verdict seemed to be split among the preschoolers, but the judges at the competition thought differently, telling the young culinary students they were impressed by the originality of their project and the creative way they taught healthy eating to the youngsters.

Harris, a veteran teacher at South County, is fast at work helping Currie and Alvarado prepare for the state FCCLA competition at the beginning of March in Orlando. This time, first-graders, who can provide more feedback, will learn how to make a healthy snack in the shape of an orange fish, complete with strawberries for lips, raisins for eyes and blueberries for bubbles.

"When the little ones see our students with their chef coats and hats, they get so excited," Harris said, reflecting on the outcome of the competition. "We're instilling this into a very young person, that maybe I can do that when I'm their age."

Harris also oversees the school's on-site Bistro restaurant, where students cook and serve meals to the staff and administration, and the Bistro catering service that raised $20,000 last year. It's all part of the training program that teaches students the restaurant business.

"I make them strive," she said. "They were under-challenged when they came here, and now they're over-challenged."

So much so, she's asking the community to help provide internships and summer jobs to students who need the experience.

Bob Evans in Sun City Center and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa have employed South County students who work as line cooks and learn how to serve at upscale restaurants.

Kathryn Moschella can be reached at