First-graders learn about Catholic social teaching through Rice Bowl

  • Written by Nathan Whalen
  • Published in Local
First-grader Seye Efrem stirs carrots and onions while classmates Jabari Lott and Mariah Morales wait for their turn. Preparing the Ethiopian dish was part of Lenten lessons for students at St. Matthew School in Seattle. Photo: Janis Olson First-grader Seye Efrem stirs carrots and onions while classmates Jabari Lott and Mariah Morales wait for their turn. Preparing the Ethiopian dish was part of Lenten lessons for students at St. Matthew School in Seattle. Photo: Janis Olson

SEATTLE – Cooking a traditional Ethiopian meal was not just fun for first-graders at St. Matthew School in Seattle — it was part of learning about people in need around the world and Catholic social teaching.

During Lent, teacher Martha DeSapio used Catholic Relief Services’ Rice Bowl program to teach her 26 students about countries including India, El Salvador and Mexico. Each week, the selected “chefs of the week” in the class helped prepare a meatless Rice Bowl recipe (adjusted for the young students), and the whole class sampled the food and learned about the country where the meal originated.

DeSapio started the weekly cooking projects in 2016 at the suggestion of her principal, Karen Herlihy, who wanted to provide “something at the first-grade level that ties in with Catholic social teaching,” DeSapio explained.

So the first-graders have also been learning about human dignity, helping the poor and vulnerable, and the dignity of work and the rights of the worker, DeSapio said.

serving CRS rice bowl meal
Seye Efrem, Abigail Yohannes and their fellow “chefs” get ready to serve injera with atkilt wat to their first-grade classmates at St. Matthew School in Seattle. Photo: Janis Olson

“We learned about God’s creation and how to take care of God’s creation,” said student Nahom Davit.

Although the themes of Catholic social teaching are difficult concepts for first-graders, the students have noticed they are similar to their school’s value system, PRISM: pride, respect, inclusion, safety and manners.

During Lent, the students watched video of CRS efforts to improve the diets of people living in remote areas of the countries featured in this year’s Rice Bowl program. The Lenten program, used in some 13,000 faith communities, focuses on prayer, fasting and almsgiving to help foster global solidarity.

At St. Matthew’s, reading, geography, social studies and religion have all been integrated as the first-graders learned how CRS supports the featured communities, DeSapio said. Math skills were used to double the recipes for the portions needed and to measure ingredients, the teacher said. And the kids picked up some cooking techniques and vocabulary through the project, which started after Ash Wednesday.

“We’ve been learning that when you chop onions, make sure you don’t put your hands on your eyes and you might cry and feel sad,” said first-grader Elena Jaramillo.

DeSapio’s class is a diverse group; some of her students’ parents were born in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Eritrea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Mexico. She said students with Ethiopian parents were especially excited to see that their April 6 meal was from Ethiopia — pancake-like injera with atkilt wat, a stir-fry of carrots, cabbage, potatoes and spices.

Atkilt on injera
Atkilt wat is an Ethiopian dish made of carrots, cabbage, potatoes and spices. It is served on injera, a pancake-like bread. Photo: Janis Olson

Teacher’s aide Melissa Grelle chopped all the ingredients, with the students taking turns adding ingredients and stirring them in. Then the aide dished up the food onto injera that was made by a parent. The “chefs” wheeled the cart of food into their classroom, where they explained how the meal was made, then served the food to their classmates.

“It was good,” said student Elias White.

Families been very involved in the Lenten project, DeSapio said. One grandfather made tortillas for an earlier meal, and several parents have helped with the cooking.

The end of the Lent doesn’t mean the end of the first-graders’ lessons about Catholic social teaching. They will participate in a food drive for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and learn about care for creation during a May visit to the tide pools at Edmonds Beach.

Plans are in the works for a “voluntell” that would involve parents coming to class and cooking for the students. The additional cooking opportunities will involve discussions about nutrient-rich foods and the efforts of people in the Rice Bowl countries to obtain nutritious food for their families, DeSapio said.

girl eating atkilt on injera
First-grader Seneca Yates samples atkilt wat that was made by her classmates and served on injera bread made by a classmate’s mother. Photo: Janis Olson

Janis Olson contributed to this report.

This story has been updated.