Healthy Food Advocate Tries to Win Over Milwaukee Students With Smoothies & Fries

Nov 25, 2015

It’s the time of year when people pull out favorite family recipes as the holiday season swirls onto the scene. One Milwaukee area resident is among a seemingly growing number of people passing on a passion for locally sourced, simply-prepared dishes.

But Kathy Papineau is going a step further.

Even as she runs a catering business that keeps her financially afloat she donates her spare time and talent to students at Community High School on Milwaukee’s northwest side. Kathy Papineau managed to wheel a jam-packed metal restaurant cart into the high school on North 80th Street without losing a blender, butane burner or a load of sweet potatoes.

Community High School English teacher Will Harvill beams. His work is what brought Papineau to the classroom today. Harvill’s professional life is also about balancing, he says his position is an amalgamation of community outreach, resource coordination, humanities department chair and a little bit of grant writing.

Harvill says since the charter school's inception twelve years ago, the MPS teachers who founded the school wanted to build it on service by first learning what’s going on in the community.

Kathy Papineau hopes this art classroom, temporarily transformed into a makeshift kitchen, will inspire at least a few of the fifteen high schoolers who wander in. While she pulls out her blender and portable stovetop, Papineau recruits a student to dish out small helpings of something resembling chocolate pudding into small cups.

The students eye the concoction skeptically.

Papineau warms them up by sharing a bit of her background and philosophy. "I came from a family where my dad was a heavy man and my mom had six kids. I was the oldest girl... I learned how to cook when I was probably half your age... it was always focused on food that wouldn't be detrimental to (my dad's) health," she explains."

A few years ago, Papineau built a commercial kitchen in the Riverwest neighborhood. Part of her drive is reduce the amount of good food going to waste. Her other goal is to convince people to eat healthier.

Up until now, students patiently listened to Papineau’s story, but Laviauna, a freshman, can’t wait another second. She’s eyeing the “pudding-like” food in her tiny metal cup and asks "what's in there". Her pudding incorporates cocoa, vanilla, honey and sweet potato.

Student reviews were mixed. I saw quite a few scrunched up faces as they nibbled tentatively at the Papineau’s creation. She remains undaunted. Papineau enlists 9th grader Trinity to Google the health benefits of sweet potatoes. It turns out there are plenty.

Tra-Don, a senior, fights his way through the ingredients of a common snack pudding Papineau brought in to compare fresh to processed. But can Papineau win the students over to the flavor and consistency of healthy dishes?

She passed around a tray of her version of fries - roasted sweet potato wedges seasoned with chili powder. Again, students didn’t seem wowed.

With class time is slipping away, Papineau attempts to divide and conquer. "So, let’s peel some sweet potatoes," she says. Some students pick up a vegetable peeler for the first time.

Laviauna says she likes what she’s learning.  "There are so many ideas. I didn't know that we can make so much out of  them," she says.

Papineau begins to concoct her version of a smoothie, passing them out in small jelly jars for the students to taste. Senior Darrion hadn’t much cared for the pudding or the fries. What about the smoothie? "I taste a lot of banana,"he says. "Mostly banana and a little bit of cinnamon. If I can get around that cinnamon taste, it would be pretty good." Papineau informs Darrion that sweet potato was also in the smoothie and it will make him "smart, health and to optimize who you can be."

Annastejia, also a senior, stands contently before the portable burner sautéing small chunks of sweet potato in a bit of coconut oil, with a dash of chili powder. She's done a bit of cooking at home. "I’m going to help with Thanksgiving dinner... The recipes I like to cook are pork chops, macaroni and cheese, vegetable and something extra on the side," Annastejia says. She can’t promise this version will make it onto her family’s Thanksgiving table, but says she’s keenly interested in cooking.

Annastejia is hoping to land a culinary internship before she graduates from Community High School. It is mentor Kathy Papineau’s turn to beam. Next week, she’ll try to dazzle another student or two with mini apple pies and Caramelized Curry Ida Red Bites.