Cook of the Week: Intern relishes teaching kids farm-to-table cooking

For the past three summers of MacKenzie LeBeau's college career, she has immersed herself in programs that explore healthier ways to feed America. This summer MacKenzie, a native of Vermont and a student at Syracuse University in New York, has worked as a crew leader for the Prairie Farm Corp, an educational program sponsored by the Liberty Prairie Foundation in Prairie Crossing. For the first time she found herself behind a kitchen counter, teaching teenagers how to cook and learning along the way herself.

“We've really been running a farm-to-table operation,” MacKenzie explains. “Our kids go through rotations, they work in the fields and then three or four of the kids come in here and cook lunch for the others.”

The vocational program has 14 students who are learning the ins and outs of organic farming. The students work in the field, harvest and wash the vegetables and sell them at a farmers market. Once a week, the students go into the community with samples and run group discussions about how to prepare the vegetables.

“This is the kind of program I always thought would be great, but never knew existed!” MacKenzie said.

Her role in the program is to teach the kids how to cook delicious meals with the bounty from the farm.

“We're really teaching seasonal cooking. The meals are completely vegetarian and mostly vegan. We have all this beautiful produce. It teaches them the cost benefit — how cheap it is to eat this way.”

“We make all our own dressings, veggie burgers, pizza (the farm grows wheat as well) pad Thai, hummus, falafel, curry, and even cake made from zucchini. Initially, the kids miss the meat, but the point is the bigger picture — they discover that they can survive without eating meat.”

MacKenzie loves the challenge of providing such a variety of vegetarian recipes and hasn't repeated any recipes all summer.

“It forces me to be a lot more creative. I look in cookbooks, Google it and sometimes take regular meat recipes and switch the meat out to the things we have.”

While her parents often grew pumpkins back home in Vermont, MacKenzie landed in Illinois with no farming or chef experience. While teaching students she's learned a thing or two, too.

“We've really had to start from scratch, teaching them basic kitchen sanitation, how to hold a knife, chopping skills, and they have learned that organic farming is a better way of doing things. A) We don't get pesticides inside us when we eat them and B) it's better for the environment.”

Learning a bit about farming and when things are harvested has helped MacKenzie.

“I remember someone told me once that you can never go wrong cooking with items that grow together. It's what I've been seeing and it is so true,” she said.

She's loved watching the kids discover how good fresh vegetables, prepared well, can be.

“Seeing the students' palettes change and develop is wonderful. The other day one of the students said, 'this is the best lemon cake I've ever had' — and it was made with zucchini!” she laughs.

The students in the Prairie Farm Corp benefit in other ways as well.

“We're preparing them for their first jobs: they learn the skills they need to communicate and work with other people,” she says. “They learn how to approach a problem and how to make the best of all situations, and maintain a positive attitude.”

Mackenzie is looking forward to returning to Syracuse for her senior year, where she is majoring in public health and minoring in nutrition and food studies. She's not sure where she will be next summer, or what the future holds for her career, but this summer has taught her how much she loves the educational aspect of her field and we suspect creating recipes, cooking, and teaching healthy habits will be ingredients in her future.

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  MacKenzie LeBeau cuts a flat bread pizza at Prairie Crossing in Grayslake. The pizza is topped with ingredients grown at the local farm. Steve Lundy/
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