“I eat my rainbow of colors every day — a packet of Skittles!” This response from a child about eating colorful food, generally referring to fruits and vegetables, prompted junior Mareesa Ahmad to take action.
Then a high school freshman in Harlan, Kentucky, who loved to cook, Ahmad realized she could do something about the issue of nutritional ignorance among children in her community. In May 2014, she launched her own cooking business for children, Kids Can Cook, recently renamed Culinary Sprouts. Since then, Ahmad has taught more than 125 children about the importance of nutritional balance by giving them hands-on instruction on how to make their own home-cooked meals.
Now, in addition to her private classes, Ahmad teaches an after-school cooking program at Summit School in Winston-Salem and educates fellow students about food insecurity through her leadership position in Campus Kitchen.
Last year, Ahmad also got accepted into the Startup Lab in the Center for Entrepreneurship, which helps advise and fund student entrepreneurs.
However, Ahmad concedes that expanding her business has been challenging, forcing her to prioritize and cut back on other extracurricular activities, including clubs and organizations she initially joined.
“Owning a startup and being a full-time student at Wake [Forest] is no joke,” Ahmad said.
But one organization that Ahmad remains devoted to is Campus Kitchen, a student-led group that repurposes food that would otherwise have gone to waste. Campus Kitchen takes donations from Aramark, The Fresh Market, Lowes Food and farmers markets, and then delivers fresh produce and nutritious meals daily to Winston-Salem nonprofits to help further their mission through food.
Ahmad started volunteering for Campus Kitchen during her freshman year, and has since achieved a position on the executive team. In her new role this year, she has been responsible for marketing and media, which is critical for recruiting and highlighting fundraising for big events, such as the TurkeyPalooza during Thanksgiving or the Grilled Cheese Fundraiser. Next year, she will take on an even bigger job for Campus Kitchen as the procurement chair, which is responsible for all inflow and outflow of food.
Senior Nichole Czuber, a fellow cooking shift leader, said Ahmad is “a wonderful teacher” who encourages the cooking shift leaders to “get creative in the kitchen.”
Fellow executive team member, senior Alice Romanov, has also seen first-hand Ahmad’s dedication and joy.
“She combines her passions in such an inspiring way,” Romanov said. “[Ahmad] is constantly motivating and educating the people around her about food and food education.”
Her approach to food education also includes writing. Notably, she has tested recipes and written for ChopChop Magazine as well as Spoon University. In 2016, ChopChop Family selected Ahmad to be on the ChopChop Kids Advisory Board. Her senior year of high school, Ahmad wrote unique stories from how to spice up your food to different uses for pineapple.
Currently, Ahmad writes for Spoon University. So far, she has written 14 different stories, most of which share great recipes that are easy to cook on a college budget.
When home in Kentucky, she continues to teach classes through her start-up, Culinary Sprouts, with clients ranging in age from 7 to 18.
In her two-hour cooking lessons, Ahmad teaches her clients fundamental cooking skills and the nutritional aspects of their meal. The lessons are priced from $69.99 to $89.99, depending on the selected meal.
Before beginning the lesson, each client chooses from Culinary Sprouts’ different options: Pasta Palooza-Spaghetti from Scratch, Pasta Palooza-Handmade Bow-Tie Pasta, Pasta Palooza-Handmade Fettuccine, Hearty Roast Vegetable Lasagna, Honey Glazed Grilled Chicken Breast, Baked Herbed Chicken, Coconut Shrimp Curry, Beef and Vegetable Stir Fry or Honey Habanero Salmon. There is also a “mystery meal” option, which entails using whatever ingredients the client has to create a meal.
Ahmad also includes other baking options, such as blueberry muffins, banana nut bread, mini cheesecakes and mini apple pies.
While the meal cooks, Ahmad also teaches dining etiquette, including table manners, how to properly set the table and the importance of eating with one’s family. After the lesson, she sends each child home with a full meal.
Through it all, Ahmad’s parents continue to support and push her. Culinary Sprouts was originally her mother’s idea, according to Ahamad. After inviting the son of a family friend to learn how to cook, Ahmad shared the photos on Facebook, which led other parents to request lessons for their children. Once she saw a market for her service, Ahmad developed a price for her cooking services and started the business.
Though she was initially encouraged by her parents, Ahmad said her real inspiration is the kids. It is because of them that she continues pursuing her business.
Even now, in the face of COVID-19, Ahmad has been offering free cooking lessons on her Culinary Sprouts website via her YouTube channel. Ahmad has posted five lessons so far, and she plans to post lessons every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. She wants to continue to promote balanced and nutritional meals for children in order to stay healthy.
“My dream career has always involved working with children or doing something in the food industry,” Ahmad said. “Culinary Sprouts gives me both.”
There’s more to eating one’s rainbow than a packet of Skittles.