A group of about a dozen sixth- to eighth-graders from all over Cape May County gathered around a folding table Oct. 27 at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Building to examine something none of them had ever seen before - the inside of a pomegranate.

Rutgers Cooperative Extension employee Linda Spengler, who is also a health and consumer science teacher at Ocean City Intermediate School, cut into the ruby-colored fruit exposing the plump, juicy pearls on its inside as the children looked on at the Junior Chefs Cooking Workshop.

"You actually eat the seeds," Spengler said to the group. "You can break it open and just scoop them out and eat them."

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The students are enrolled in a two-session cooking and nutrition workshop being offered by the Family and Community Health Sciences Department of Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County, led by its department head Marilou Rochford, with the assistance of two of Ocean City School District's family and consumer science teachers, Mary Maguire and Spengler.

The first session took place Oct. 20. Somehow, during session one, talk of pomegranates came up - and to the teachers' surprise, it was met with a room full of blank stares.

The students said they had never seen or tasted pomegranates. The following Saturday, they would.

The purpose of the junior cooking and nutrition workshop, which was a pilot program, was to provide middle school children with a foundation for healthy cooking, with hopes that the lessons and lifestyle they learn will then follow them into adulthood.

"We hear so often about children who don't know anything about cooking other than how to put something in the microwave, and the number of obese children keeps growing and growing," Rochford said. "So as a result, we were like, 'OK, how do we put some tools in these kids hands so that they can do more than pop something in the microwave or toaster oven and make something healthy that they can handle?'"

The hands-on cooking demonstrations were tailored to the kids' ages and some of the nutrition topics discussed included kitchen safety and food sanitation, the My Plate diagram, the value of family mealtime, portion control and more.

During part one of the series, the group made some tasty and healthy breakfast meals, including pumpkin pancakes and smoothies. For part two, they made a few dinner and dessert options including a spinach salad, a stir-fry and a baked apple crisp topped with an oatmeal streusel.

Nutrition lessons were intertwined into the cooking demonstration. For example, while making the oatmeal streusel topping for the apple crisp, Spengler explained how oatmeal can help lower cholesterol.

"Boys and girls, when we eat animal products, our nice, clean veins can get a build-up of plaque on them and oats go through, and they scour that. They clean the veins," she said.

"Doesn't Cheerios really help lower cholesterol, too?" asked 14-year-old Julia Herrington, of Ocean City. "Because I eat a bowl of Cheerios every day for breakfast."

The kids said they signed up for the cooking series for a variety of reasons. Logan Thomas, 11, of Middle Township, said she wants to become a chef one day and wanted to get a head start. Carly McGinn, 11, said she wants to teach her dad how to cook.

Some, including Thomas, had already tried some of the recipes they learned during the cooking workshop at home.

"My dad really likes smoothies, so I made one for him and he said he really enjoyed it," she said. "It's something good to have in the morning."

Rochford said because of the success of the program she plans to offer it again in the future.

"It was a great program, and you can tell the kids really had fun and learned some things," she said.

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