RICHMOND -- Fifteen pairs of young eyes dialed in on Katie Workman and her hands.
The author of "The Mom 100 Cookbook" made a claw with one hand while the other held a zucchini -- almost a foreign object to her audience of 6- to 12-year-olds -- before she showed them how to slice it.
She carved the green vegetable with a white child-safe plastic chef's knife, like the ones the children use Friday afternoons, to explain kitchen and cooking safety as part of a summer program at the Nevin Community Center in Richmond.
"I don't think anything is more powerful than getting kids involved with the cooking process," said Workman, a 20-year supporter of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit organization to end childhood hunger.
The cooking class at the community center in the Iron Triangle, at Nevin Park between Fourth and Sixth streets on Macdonald Avenue, is being offered for the second year by Three Squares, a local nonprofit group that teaches through nutrition and cooking classes.
Three Squares East Bay coordinator Mikaela Dunitz, 24, is one of the four cooking instructors to come to the Nevin Center with Three Squares. They teach the children through an hour of nutrition lessons and an hour of cooking once a week for six weeks.
Dunitz used flash cards with photos of ingredients from artichokes to quinoa -- neither of which the children could identify -- and explained how to group and balance them through the five food groups:
After their lecture on nutrition, the children were ready to cook.
But first, they had to wash their hands. They lined up behind two sinks embedded in counters along the northern wall, which is painted lavender, and sang the "Happy Birthday" song as they lathered and rinsed up for 30 seconds.
While the 15 young ones diced and sliced zucchinis or grated carrots and cheese for their dishes, camp counselor Ludrate Burton walked into the makeshift kitchen to see his kids around the four foldable tables stuck together and said with a grin, "It scares me they have real knives," before he turned around and walked out of the multicolored backroom of the Nevin Center.
After all the ingredients were prepared, Workman threw the vegetables into camping stove-heated pans. The vegetables sauteed one-by-one, creating a rich mixture of colors in stainless steel bowls that would fill the quesadillas.
As the cooking came to an end, the silence of 15 well-fed children allowed the room to fill with a smoky haze and a delicious odor that escaped through the open door, luring in the armed security guard who sits down the hall, just inside the front doors of the center.
Workman, a mother of 9- and 12-year-old sons, said getting children excited about cooking and staying active in the kitchen interests them in trying new foods because they would have spent time cooking it and will want to eat it.
"We served black bean quesadilla; they all had a hand in making it," Workman said. "Every single one of them made it, liked it (and) had three."
Tetteh Kisseh, recreation program coordinator for Richmond, said the cooking classes are part of a complete regimen to teach the children he sees each day from the neighborhood how to grow up and be healthy.
The 44-year-old immigrant from Ghana said, "The summer camp is all about giving kids opportunities to make choices. The program teaches kids about the choices out there to healthy eating. All the activities we do here complement it."
The day before Workman showed the kids how to make black bean vegetable quesadillas and "Popeye" fruit and yogurt smoothies with spinach, the group went to Cull Canyon Regional Park in Castro Valley. They go swimming on Tuesdays, and Kisseh said they will go sailing and biking. Basketball, soccer and volleyball are played daily outside and indoors.
"Healthy eating and activity are making the kids whole in a holistic (way)," Kisseh said.
Tavio Howard, 19, and Burton, both counselors at the Nevin Center, said they know what the kids they chaperone daily are experiencing, having grown up similarly in Oakland.
"This is the most important thing they got. They are away from their parents eight hours a day; we teach them how to cook, line up right. It helps them out a lot," Howard said. "(They) go shopping, (we) teach them to bring something to the cart that's not a candy bar."