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Kids Solar Cook Off

Story and photos by Erik Hoffner, World Ark contributor

“I like that we use the sun to do it,” said a 5th grader of preparing food with a solar cooker, “and that you don’t need fuel.” He and his classmates from Mary M. Walsh Elementary School in Springfield, Massachusetts, were spending a week learning about agriculture at Red Gate Farm in Buckland, an educational farm about an hour north and west of their city by big yellow bus, and some of them took part in a solar cook-off one sunny afternoon. The idea was to compare three kinds of solar cookers, I told them, to decide which ones we like the best. And also, I said, the rule was that we’d have to eat what we made.

Kids Solar Cook-Off
(From left to right) London Mu’min-Denson, Phoebe Weng, Ashley Miller, Yinelis Gutierrez and Nilza Rodriguez-Aviles try juice made using the SolSource cooker.

That brought cheers from the kids sitting on a nearby array of picnic tables. This excitement was quickly tempered by my insistence that we learn a little before cooking anything, like the fact that the sun beams more energy onto the Earth every hour than humanity uses in a whole year, and that these solar cookers arranged on the grass were designed for people who don’t have modern stoves and ovens like we did at home, but who rather have to cook over smoky fi res that make moms and kids sick (I spared them the statistic that 4.3 million people die every year from smoke-related illnesses, mostly women and children).

How would your family make dinner if you didn’t have electricity, or gas, I asked them. With solar energy, I explained, you could do it for free, without cutting down a tree and without the choking smoke. Still, they needed some proof, so we elected a couple of kids to help load raw ingredients into the three cookers, a SolSource dish-style cooker, which concentrates the sun’s rays at the bottom of a pot to boil water or heat a frying pan; a Solavore box-style cooker, which captures sun and traps heat inside a dark interior to bake food, like a closed car on a sunny day; and a GoSun Sport, which reflects light onto a tube surrounded by a vacuum, the same way solar hot water systems operate on the roof of homes. Inside that tube, I explained, a long thin tray can bake or roast anything you want, including cake, which prompted some excited looks.

Today, though, the GoSun was loaded with chopped root vegetables from the farm. The kids brightened up when the Solavore box cooker was loaded with raw cookie dough, and again when we filled a pot on the SolSource with water, sugar and a whole lot of berries grown at Red Gate Farm. When boiled, strained and mixed with seltzer and ice cubes, these ingredients would create a yummy fresh soda to wash down the cookies and carrots. While we waited for the sun to make our midafternoon treats, we talked about the moms and their kids (mostly girls) who, in many places in the world, start every day by walking many miles to cut fi rewood before cooking breakfast. And how this can be even more dangerous than the resulting smoky cook fires, because sometimes there are hungry animals prowling out there, or irritated elephants. Or even people who might rob them.

The Solsource dish-style solar cooker was the consensus favorite among adults.
The Solsource dish-style solar cooker was the consensus favorite among adults.

“Do you think you’d be ready to learn at school after doing so much work before breakfast?” I asked. Checking on the progress of our meal, it seemed it would take a little while longer, so I asked them if they thought their families would use a solar cooker like this, if the fuel were free? The result was a couple maybes, one yes and one declarative no from a student who explained, “Because we like to do things fast.” His classmate chimed in that if it’s taking a long time to cook, that would be fine with her, because then she could do other things at the same time. Which, I pointed out, was something lots of people do in countries where pre-packaged foods and microwaves aren’t readily available.

Suddenly everything was done, and the kids and their adult helpers pulled the cookies, veggies and juice from their respective stoves. A spirited snacking ensued, and even the roasted roots all disappeared behind wide smiles. So what was everyone’s favorite solar cooker, I wanted to know? By far the kids liked the Solavore box cooker, and not just because it was responsible for the baking of cookies. Rather, they liked it most because it was easy to see the food cooking. The adults all liked the SolSource for its fl exibility, since it accommodates large pots of water to boil grains or pasta or veggies, and also can heat a frying pan. That left the GoSun without fans, but I pointed out that it made such a delicious dish of carrots that they were all gone.

So in the end, all the cookers came out winners, and so did the beautiful blue sky, which on that afternoon was just a bit less smoky.


Heifer Cooks Up Sustainable Solutions

By Austin Bailey, World Ark managing editor

The deforestation and air pollution that come with cooking over open flames are just part of the problem. Millions of women and girls in developing nations spend hours a day foraging for wood, leaving them with little time for school, work and other pursuits. And smoke inhalation that comes along with open-flame cooking has devastating effects on health, contributing to millions of deaths each year.

Photos: Cooking Up Sustainable Solutions

Heifer International aims to preserve the health of people and the planet by promoting more sustainable cooking methods in our projects around the globe.

Heifer International aims to preserve the health of people and the planet by promoting more sustainable cooking methods in our projects around the globe. We work with project participants to help them choose cooking options that are culturally and environmentally appropriate. In Malawi, that means Heifer is supporting women’s groups to make and sell highly efficient, portable ovens that use less than half the fuel of the traditional open fires. These improved stoves also emit less smoke, and because they are enclosed, they are less likely to cause burns. Project participants in Malawi are also adopting heat-retention cookers that require only a short amount of time over a heat source.

Heifer also embraces solar energy and uses solar panels in some projects. In other countries where Heifer works, we help project participants turn waste into fuel with biogas digesters. The digesters turn organic waste into rich fertilizer and combustible methane gas used for cooking and lighting. Children can study past sunset thanks to the light in their homes that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and time once spent hunting for cooking fuel can go to other things. Trees that might have been chopped for cooking fuel are preserved. This method of cooking has health benefits as well, since it significantly cuts indoor air pollution and the associated health risks.

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