ST. PETERSBURG — They made soup, pasta primavera and Greek frittata, chopping, slicing and savoring ingredients that might have been unfamiliar.
Chef Anita Jimenez likes to joke about sneaking vegetables into the recipes she teaches children and their parents to cook.
One recent evening at the Childs Park Recreation Center, Ashley Gray and her children — Charles Harris Jr., 14, and Amira Harris, about to turn 7 — diced half an eggplant for Greek frittata.
“We never explored eggplant before, because it looked weird in the store,” said Gray, who teaches third grade at Gulfport Elementary School. But sauteed, with a large chopped potato and other ingredients such as spinach, red pepper and dill, no one remembered the strange purple vegetable they had once avoided.
Jimenez is the nutrition and culinary program coordinator in the community relations department at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. She teaches the free AllKids in the Kitchen class in a partnership with the city of St. Petersburg’s Healthy St. Pete program.
The multi-faceted Healthy St. Pete initiative, run by the Parks and Recreation Department, also includes fitness activities for children and adults, financial literacy classes, sessions to help residents learn about lifestyle changes to manage diabetes and produce coolers at city facilities that let residents buy fresh fruits and vegetables at low prices.
“It is difficult to describe what Healthy St. Pete is, only that it is anything and everything related to health” and examines “real issues in our city that happen in our neighborhoods,” Leisure services administrator Mike Jefferis said.
Focused on encouraging “a culture of health” throughout the city, Jefferis said the program gets its impetus from Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, a former hospital administrator. “It matches her personal beliefs and passion,” he said.
The city program taps into the expertise of organizations like Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, BayCare Health System and GTE Financial. It has also received grants from others, including the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Peter, which funds the bags of produce that families can take home after each cooking class and from other programs.
“We believe that the city can't do it all, shouldn't do it all,” Jefferis said of the community collaboration.
Kim Lehto, who coordinates the program, described one of its components, Health360, as a way “to address chronic disease issues and also to increase access to healthier foods and options.”
Healthy St. Pete “is a systematic framework of polices, programs and projects,” Lehto said. “We have our educational programs. We have our kids programs and fitness programs and our health in all policies.” Programs are created based on community input and studies such as the 2019 County Health Rankings, Lehto said. According to the county rankings, 23 percent of Pinellas County adults do no daily physical activity. The 2018 Pinellas County Community Health Needs Assessment found that 64 percent of adults are overweight or obese.
In the Childs Park Recreation Center’s test kitchen one recent Wednesday evening, Jimenez showed children and their parents how to peel an onion and cut a mango into tantalizing cubes. But her lessons go beyond cooking.
“The only way we learn is by doing,” she explained later. “If they are never going to handle a knife, then they’re never going to use it properly. I try to make sure that I am teaching them the proper way to use the knife,” she said.
That evening, mothers and their children, a stepfather and his stepson, huddled over eggplant and red peppers, spinach, feta cheese and other ingredients to make Greek frittata. They appeared eager for a taste when it came out of the oven.
“They are more willing to taste the food when they are part of the process of creating it,” Jimenez said. As a chef, she is able “to show them how to bring out the best in the food," she said. "It’s not just to cook something. I can say, if we roast it, it’s going to be better than if we steam it.”
Deciding what to teach is easy. “I try over the course of the six weeks to have a variety of protein, lean or non-animal proteins. I might look at what is available seasonally. I like to have a soup, something with whole grains. I try not repeat vegetables,” Jimenez said, adding that she tries to use about 25 different vegetables during the six weeks.
“I have found that if I put a little bit of something I know that they love, they are more willing to try it. I try to make sure that there is something that they are familiar with,” she said.
Something like pasta and cheese. That worked for Gray and her family. The pasta primavera was their favorite. ”I even took it to work and shared it with my colleagues,” Gray said.
The class attracted her for several reasons, Gray said. “I thought this would be a good way to have social interaction with other families and also to start living a healthier lifestyle. My son is in sports and we’re usually out of the house until about 8:30 at night. We’re always busy at tournaments and when we are not at tournaments, we are at family events,” she said.
She added that the recipes are simple to prepare and that Amira, a heart transplant patient, likes to help at home. They were looking forward to completing the six-week series, set to end on April 8, but the coronavirus brought the classes to a halt. They’ll sign up again, Gray said.
Editors Note: While some sessions will be on hiatus due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Healthy St. Pete program will be offering virtual programming, which includes free online videos. For more information, call (727) 892-5994.