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SBHS Alum Expands Program for Healthy Kids

South Brunswick High School graduate Allison O'Brien launched the Garden State Community Kitchen in late 2012 with the modest goal of helping a handful of kids make healthy lifestyle changes. 

The GSCK officially began working with kids last spring providing free fitness, gardening, nutrition and cooking classes to local families who may be at high risk for childhood diabetes and other obesity-related health issues. After a successful start, the GSCK is looking to expand in 2014 with a full-fleged summer program to further encourage kids and their families to make healthy choices. 

"Number one is that the kids really enjoyed it. They miss it already and I miss them, so in one sense that's the most important thing," O'Brien said. "I'm really happy at how it positively influenced families. The community was kind of getting inspired by this type of programming and they want to see more of it. Hopefully other people like me will try and spread food awareness to kids at a younger age."

O'Brien, who graduated from SBHS in 2003, came across the "community kitchen" concept while volunteering in Northern California during culinary school in 2012, before she became a Certified Natural Chef. The concept involves working with adult and teen volunteers to prepare meals and distribute them to families who are sponsored by the organization.

After registering as an official non-profit, the GSCK launched in September last year and began providing free programming to local families.

Fitness classes were offered at Breakthrough Fitness by Certified Personal Trainer Anthony Carter, who taught routines that made exercise fun with games that encouraged personal challenges.

Gardening classes were taught at Crossroads North Middle School by Robert Saldino of the middle school Science Department, with Eagle Scout Thomas O'Toole, who built the community garden the program utilized. In that class, the kids learned how to plant, care for, and harvest fresh vegetables.

O'Brien taught a class at Crossroads North on nutrition, through a partnership with a registered dietitian, and a cooking class at the South Brunswick Senior Center.

"We finished the six-month program and were able to accomplish all of our goals," O'Brien said. "We have a garden at Crossroads that we maintained and cultivated throughout the season. We cooked a whole bunch of food and they got really good by the end. We went through the nutrition and science program and they learned about vitamins and meal planning, that was wonderful. But while in the middle of it, I knew we couldn't reach as many kids as I wanted through the program."

As a result, O'Brien plans to expand the GSCK to an 8-week summer program next year with an intensive educational platform at the Sand Hills Community Wellness Center. 

"It's going to be the same stuff on a larger scale," she said. "We're going to build a garden there to feed the staff and any participants, and we'll have a personal trainer again."

The kids will also prepare lunch at the program each day, with each two-week session serving 30 kids. In addition, kids will also do yoga and engage in outdoor activities. 

"We're going to offer the program on a sliding scale. For some people it will be free, but families that can afford it will pay what they can, but it will be on a sliding scale," she said. "We're still fundraising and looking for ways to fund the program so people who can't afford it will still be able to go, by offering it for free or like the reduced lunch program for kids. But we think it will be really attractive to parents looking for a summer program for their kids."

The impact of the GSCK can be far reaching, as in just a few short months participants saw a drastic difference in their fitness and healthy eating habits.

"One of our kids, Robert was the star of our personal training. At the beginning he couldn't do one sit-up, but at the end he could do 30," O'Brien said. "His flexibility increased, his endurance and his attitude toward fitness in general improved. In terms of cooking, Nyia was our best cook and she got really good at flavor balancing. We'd be making hummus and the taste wouldn't be quite right, so I'd ask what she thought it needed and she gave me the correct answer."

In an effort to raise money for the summer program, the GSCK will be holding a fundraiser on Dec. 22 at the Salt Creek Grille restaurant in Princeton with a luncheon from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Kids who participated in the program are planning the menu and cooking the meal with O'Brien and other adult volunteers. There will also be a silent auction.

Admission costs $50. People can register on the day of the event or pay in advance. Contact O'Brien at allieobrien@gmail.com for more information on attending the fundraiser or for more information on the summer program.

For more information on the GSCK, to donate or volunteer, visit their web site by clicking here.

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