It's a hectic night inside the Heritage Park leasing office just west of downtown Minneapolis, where 15 young children are scrambling to assemble the best ramen dish.
"We need to put more of the cayenne pepper in to make sure it's spicy," said 12-year-old Lester Drake, who won the Thursday night Top Chef award for his group's dish.
Active Chefs, launched in 2010 by nonprofit Urban Strategies Inc., is a free 10-week program offered several times a year that serves to address issues children face with food insecurity. Each week, kids are given a challenge similar to reality cooking shows — they split into groups and create a dish within a time limit before several instructors come around and grade it. The grading criteria includes the taste, teamwork, dish presentation, and unique sales pitch.
By combining it with a class environment and presentations from youth program coordinator Shakyira Jackson, it has given kids in the Heritage Park housing complex a way to learn about cooking, making healthy choices and working with a team. It also helps them make friends.
"It got me out of my comfort zone – I didn't really like talking with new people who weren't my family or someone I didn't know, but I had to work and communicate with my team," said 15-year-old volunteer Isahk Abubaker, an Active Chefs alumni.
Even if the food turns out badly or the kids don't retain everything she teaches, Jackson said, the program has turned the complex's leasing park into a useful youth gathering hub.
"Even if they're not taking in the cooking aspects of it, they're getting more social and emotional learning, and are able to connect with their peers and their neighbors in Heritage Park," said Jackson, who grew up in the complex west of Interstate 94 and north of Olson Memorial Hwy. She said she has experienced struggles with food insecurity, like some of the current participants.
The program is also helping combat the disadvantages and food insecurity faced by young people in the neighborhood. The area has a reputation as a food desert, with limited grocery shopping options nearby, and most participants live in subsidized housing.
This week was the launch of the spring program, which began with a focus on customized ramen with different spices, cut-up vegetables, eggs and kimchi. After kids assembled the noodles, each group was given a blank sheet of paper and instructions to come up with a ramen business slogan. Then they either pitched their food or performed a dance or song about their theoretical business.
The program is open to kids from kindergarten through seventh grade. A community needs assessment by Urban Strategies prior to the program's launch showed the top priorities were increased food security and out-of-school opportunities for youth.
"In this neighborhood, there's not many available options, and the nearest grocery store is a good while away," said 16-year-old Nimet Abubaker, Isahk's sister, who helps supervise the program.
Following the assessment, Urban Strategies noticed many of the kids at Heritage Park would come home from school and be on their own, sometimes scraping together dinner from vending machine food, said senior project manager Elana Dahlberg.
The success of the program also led to the popular Green Garden Bakery — a youth-run business that now has a brick-and-mortar location at 815 Sumner Court in Heritage Park.
When one of the Active Chefs participants was paralyzed in a car accident in 2014, the children wanted to find a way to raise money to help her out. They had recently experimented with making a green tomato dessert cake which the judges liked, and they decided to sell it in a fundraiser to support the injured girl. The success of that fundraiser became the foundation of the bakery, which now employs kids ages 13 to 18.
The business splits its proceeds into thirds, with equal amounts going to help the neighborhood, a third going to the teen workers, and a third going to a charity of their choice. In the past, neighborhood funding from the bakery went to providing security cameras for a couple of houses that were broken into, Nimet said.
Nimet is now the executive vice president of the bakery, while her brother serves as the lead farmer.
Through the creativity and experimenting that Active Chefs allows, Dahlberg said she thinks it has put the children on track to live healthier throughout their lives.
"That willingness to try new foods and experiment for themselves, we've seen such a change where these youth leaders now have these mostly plant- and veggie-based desserts," Dahlberg said. "It's such a foreign concept, and being able to experiment with those types of things as a really young kid makes their trajectory really change."
To volunteer or support Active Chefs or Green Garden Bakery, there's a donation link and a "Get Involved" link at greengardenbakery.org.