Culinary educator brings families to Camp Dinner Table to teach cooking, foster engagement

While 7-year-old Brooklyn Birthwright is precocious and confident, she’s still a kid. She likes to play with friends, watch cartoons, and ride her bike. She also likes to cook and frequently is in the kitchen with her grandma, who lives two blocks away in Jefferson Chalmers.


So when her mother, Marquisa Shannon, found out about a virtual summer cooking program called Camp Dinner Table, she enrolled Brooklyn. “I could never find a cooking class that was within her age bracket or close to our house and things of that nature,” she says.


Camp Dinner Table fit the bill. Concerned about COVID-19, Shannon wanted Brooklyn to have the opportunity to explore something different over the summer, but be safe. And because the program was grant-funded, there was no out-of-pocket cost.
Brooklyn Birthwright watches a cooking lesson via Zoom.


Camp Dinner Table was designed for families to come back to the table to build family unity and cook quality meals together, according to owner and instructor Yolanda Scarborough.


She delivered ingredients and supplies for each week’s recipe to every camper’s door.


The sessions were one hour via Zoom. Campers built skills around the food they prepared and learned about the cultural, regional, and historical relevancy. During camp sessions, they cooked the food together as they talked and learned.


The students chose what to cook for the following week. The first week they tackled homemade pizza. Campers handled the dough, stretching and kneading it and then rolling it out with a rolling pin. Scarborough showed them all the steps on how pizza is made and how they could either add or delete toppings to create a pizza to their liking.


As a working mother, Shannon appreciated the skills and safety aspects of the class, like properly handling a knife. Brooklyn was trained on how to hold a knife, cut away from the fingers, and skillfully use it to cut to the required thickness. Campers also learned stovetop safety, which was important for Shannon.


“At 8 years old, I wasn't allowed to cook on the stove,” she says. “It helped me get over my fear of allowing her to cook on the stove to prepare a small meal.”


Brooklyn learned the nature and dangers of a hot burner, how to be responsible when at the stove, with safety tips like not leaving dishrags or other items near burners and turning a pot handle inward to prevent overturning it.


The classes were family-oriented, so children needed to have an adult with them. Be it a parent, aunt, or grandparent — someone needed to be involved. “Just to see the enthusiasm that the kids had with the class made whoever was their support person even happier to be involved in it,” says Shannon.


Scarborough says that the parents and the youth learned a lot together while bonding: "It is often said that it is hard to get parent involvement. This was not the case with our families thus far."


Camp Dinner Table was inspired by Scarborough's own experiences and memories of eating together with her four siblings and her mother, who always made dinner time special, even when there was not a lot of food. A former behavioral specialist for public and charter schools, Scarborough worked with mostly at-risk and special needs children for 20 years. Today, she consults for a number of youth programs around trauma-informed care and social-emotional learning and runs her business, Carolyn's Hope, which houses four offshoot businesses, including Camp Dinner Table and her own catering company. She also served as program director for Detroit Food Academy for five years.
Essais Owens, one of Camp Dinner Table's participants. His mother reports that they now have turned Friday into family cooking time.


The classes were five weeks long, and the group met once a week. Shannon says there were minor glitches to the online platform, but they were manageable. Sometimes the internet was slow or the Zoom froze, but they managed. The class was recorded, so Shannon and Brooklyn could always go back and review the lessons.


With the children deciding on the menu, it was not surprising that dessert was one of the requests. They made strawberry shortcake one week, learning to cut the strawberries into rose shapes.


Another week they assembled avocado toast, now a favorite for Shannon. A breakfast menu involved making sunny-side-up eggs. Scarborough praised Brooklyn on her near-perfect execution, with just-set whites and runny yolks.


The idea of families preparing meals together and sitting down as a family to enjoy them is at the core of the program, which ended with a family supper sit-down, where the children and families put into practice all that they learned.


With summer programming that started in June, Camp Dinner Table served over 70 students, more than Scarborough had expected. A new five-week session, the program's seventh cohort, started on Aug. 29, with 15 students enrolled at a cost of $20 a week. "Half of those are students coming back for round two," says Scarborough. "That speaks to the joy of food and family the parents are experiencing together."


Scarborough's plan is to offer the program every five weeks with specialized classes during school breaks and for holidays. Parents have been pushing Scarborough to offer an adult-style Camp Dinner Table. "I think in this iteration parents are looking to communicate about parenting skills and build community with other families during a time where socialization is at an all-time low," Scarborough says.


Brooklyn was always eager for the weekly class, talking about what they were making and the ingredients that would be used. The program kept her attention — not an easy task for a busy, young girl. She was one of 11 students in Camp Dinner Table’s third- to fifth-grade cohort (Scarborough also hosted classes for sixth- to seventh-grade students and eighth-to 11th-grade students).

Although in the youngest age group, Brooklyn and her peers wanted to learn additional skills.
Campers built skills around the food they prepared, like this quesadilla.


“Even with them being young, her class group, they wanted to do more,” says Shannon. “Brooklyn wanted to do more of the scratch stuff, like how to make pasta. But I was always reminding her that we only have an hour, and it takes about an hour to prepare fresh pasta.”


It’s that sort of engagement and interest in learning that parents want to see in their children. Shannon thinks cooking classes are something that she’ll pick back up and continue — especially classes in baking, in which Brooklyn has a keen interest.


“We all have complicated lifestyles, packed schedules even before COVID happened,” says Shannon. “But now that we're stuck in a house, we have no choice but to give the kids the basic knowledge. This program did restore that in many of the families that participated.”


While Shannon yearns for the days when home economics was offered in school, she knows that won’t likely be on the curriculum in the near future. So, it’s up to families, even single-parent families like Shannon’s to cook together, pass down generational knowledge, and share time together.


“It’s a strength to sit down and prep your meal plan, whether that's for lunch or for dinner. It's like incorporating that old-school family meal,” Shannon says. “We prepare dinner, we sit at the table together, versus let's take the easy way out and go to McDonald's and leave. It helps eliminate that. It forces a parent to be a parent.”

Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.
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