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story.lead_photo.caption Young chefs from the Callaway Hills Elementary School Cooking Club serve lasagna with all the fixings Wednesday during a fundraising dinner for family and friends. The money raised will go to the school's cooking and the garden clubs. Photo by Mark Wilson / News Tribune.

Elementary school students worked elbow-to-elbow with each other Wednesday night while preparing meals.

Then, the 15 fourth- and fifth-graders stood shoulder-to-shoulder, serving dinner to more than 100 people at Callaway Hills Elementary School.

The event was the culmination of six weeks of lessons the students had taken as members of the school's cooking club. It was also a fundraiser to help the school's cooking and gardening clubs continue to operate into the future. The cooking club was started as part of a Healthy Schools Healthy Communities grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health. The grant is intended to help lower students' body mass indexes in four area schools — Callaway Hills, East, South and Thorpe.

A second dinner will be scheduled for this fall, when students will be able to cook produce their friends in the garden club have grown.

Members of both clubs are learning to make better food choices, said Patty Stegemann, the school's nutrition manager.

"We have a lot of good food and we make a lot of foods from scratch," Stegemann said. "If (students are) working in our kitchen, they're eating more of our food."

At 11, Shelby Parkison cooks at home — a lot.

She joined the club as a fourth-grader. Now a veteran fifth-grader, she's philosophical about cooking.

"It's kind of like math," Parkison said. "You have to know all the ingredients. You have to figure out how long to bake things."

The best part, she said, was that she got to spend time with her friends while she learned how to cook.

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Before the cooking club developed, the school already had a longstanding garden club, supervised by local master gardeners who volunteer their time, teacher Justin Reynolds said. As the physical education instructor, Reynolds already had a leadership role in making students aware of their health and lifestyle choices.

The Healthy Schools grant helped pay for equipment inside and outside the school that students can use to be more active. It paid for basketball goals and a walking trail outside the school. Inside, it purchased about 20 small trampolines in classrooms, he said.

Parents and teachers understand there are students who just can't sit still. Instead of trying to force the students to sit uncomfortably idle in a class, they can let them move in place on the trampolines.

"If a kid's got to move, that's what we're going to let them do," Reynolds said.

And starting in April, the school is going to begin an athletic club that will meet once a week.

The goal is to put all the efforts together to make students healthier, he said.

The response to the dinner — prepared and served by the children — was surprising, Callaway Hills teacher Erin Little said. Dinner at the end of the first year was only prepared for club members' families. So, only about 25 people were there.

Organizers hoped opening up the dinner to the general public would, in a small way, begin to help fund the club. After all, the Healthy Schools grant is limited and ends in two years, Little said.

And then, about 140 people showed up.

Stegemann joked she hoped they had enough lasagna for the crowd.

The students made enough for more than 160, she said.

Little said she was blown away by the students as she listened to them while they served food, wiped down tables and put things away. They said they just wanted to cook with their families, Little said.

Many of those family members attended the dinner.

Gilbert and June Stanley, of Osage City, said their granddaughter, Michelle Jackson, helps out in the kitchen at home.

"She's our little chef," June Stanley said. "If she cooks, we all try it."

The couple said they think only good things can come from children learning to cook at such an early age.

Tim Beech, another proud grandfather, said he wouldn't miss the dinner. He would do whatever he could in support of Timothy Beech, a 10-year-old fourth-grader who is a member of the garden club. Tim Beech said he loves seeing children so excited about something.

His grandson said gardening is pretty simple.

"We plant stuff," he said. "It's not actually dirty. Not like the farm."

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