Students prepare meal at the PB&J Kitchen

One local nonprofit is providing children with the information and resources to cook well for themselves.

“We work with children at a very young age on nutrition, food safety and basic culinary math and skills,” said Emily Wampler, executive director of the PB&J Fund. “Essentially, we want to remove all the barriers for families to eat well at home.”

The PB&J Fund conducts classes during the week for students ranging from third-graders to young moms.

The organization partners with the Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters and local schools — for their students — and local food-based organizations — for their ingredients.

PB&J has been operating for six years, and a new space off the Downtown Mall on Market Street makes it more efficient to host classes for larger groups while keeping the focus on cooking. Many of the participating schools and programs provide transportation for the students to the PB&J kitchen.

All of the classes are free thanks to support provided by a Charlottesville-based family foundation.

“It’s a wonderful thing to focus on the mission and programs and not raising all of the money,” Wampler said.

Having their own space has increased the need for volunteers. The group asks for a commitment of an entire semester so the children have a consistent adult presence.

Two former volunteers who are now permanent staff members are Alicia Cost, program director, and Courtenay Evans, head chef and culinary educator.

Cost, a registered dietitian, works with Evans’ culinary background to make a well-rounded program for a wide range of students. Recipes are based on seasonality, nutrition and cost effectiveness. Because of the chef-in-training program, they also look at the skill level in deciding which recipes to use.

“We also teach them different ways to make the recipes so they can figure out the best way to make it for their family,” Cost said.

“It’s great to see the reactions of the children, seeing what they enjoy and don’t enjoy, and just getting to know them better as people,” Evans said.

Volunteer support is another key ingredient to the program’s success.

“The volunteers are classy people that are here for the right reasons, and the children can sense that,” said Cost. “We have lots of wonderful volunteers.”

The PB&J Fund provides four major programs, the largest being the creative cooking program that serves more than 100 children a week. The children can explore their interest in cooking or join the chef-in-training program on a semester basis.

“Some children are interested in pursuing cooking as a career,” Wampler said. “Some are interested in food writing. For us, it’s all about building relationships with the children, making sure they understand how to eat well and live well.”

Primo Plato teaches young moms to prepare healthy meals for their preschoolers and they have a new program working with the Young Life organization for teen mothers to learn how to prepare healthy meals for their babies.

The Virginia Institute of Autism has groups coming in Monday mornings to help with groceries and prepare seasoning packets for PB&J’s holiday outreach, in which the organization provides large food bags for needy city families.

PB&J participants in some classes leave with a bag of groceries and a recipe to make their meal again. As they grow in the program, they execute each recipe on their own and bring it home fully prepared to their family.

PB&J emphasizes cost-effective cooking, as well. To translate the meals at home, they provide ingredients that are popular and affordable.

“We want these meals to be easily replicated,” Evans said.

“We also introduce a lot of proteins and grains that have more of a shelf life,” Wampler said. “We want to make the meals made here translatable back at home by simplifying meals and making them healthier.”