Springfield high school student creates cookbook to foster healthier eating habits among youths

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SPRINGFIELD, NJ — Jonathan Dayton High School senior Mutazz Maxwell has authored a cookbook, “Cooking With Champions,” to teach younger children how to cook and gain access to better foods, all while eating healthier. Although Maxwell admits to loving music and football, his love for cooking was inspired by someone whom he holds dear — his mother.

“My mom taught me how to cook and I just love it,” the 18-year-old Springfield resident said on Tuesday, May 11. “I would say that cooking takes my mind off things that are troubling me, and it is a stress reliever. You just have to get into it and have fun.”

Maxwell threw all of his energy into cooking while dealing with the daunting emotions of his mother’s battle with cancer.

“When she was in the hospital and when I was cooking at home, I would always listen to music. That made me forget what was happening, and I was so focused on cooking,” Maxwell said. “When I cook, I enjoy the smell of it. My mom enjoys my cooking a lot, where I’m the only one cooking in the household. My mom has recovered and gotten rid of the cancer.”

Maxwell said his cookbook will help children to eat healthier and learn how to make healthy meals for less than $2.

“It will show people that, if you eat healthier, you can live longer, and it can help you, together with exercise and being active. You have healthier food to go with that,” Maxwell said. “I feel as though it’s good to eat healthier, and I need to do it more often. There’s a lot of food where you can create a healthy meal.”

By participating in the Union County Career Exploration and Job Readiness Program at the Boxwood Learning Center, a program funded by the Juvenile Justice Commission, which is supposed to be an alternative to juvenile detention, Maxwell was able to write the cookbook.

“This program is for people that had problems in their past, and they help you get a good job,” Maxwell said. “They can help you finish school, and they do a lot of stuff for people. I was just one of them.

“I wanted to do this,” he added. “I just love helping people. I think the book will have a large impact on everyone.”

The Boxwood Learning Center, located at 115 W. Second Ave. in Roselle, is dedicated to helping younger people, explained Boxwood Executive Director Marie Thelusma-Chase.

“The Boxwood Learning Center is a nonprofit organization that I co-founded with community members about two years ago,” Thelusma-Chase said on Friday, May 7. “Our vision is simple: Support champions on their pathway to success. I personally was arrested at a young age, was expelled from middle school and was in special education. The root of the matter was because I was an immigrant who couldn’t assimilate to the Western culture. I don’t want youth in the juvenile system or special education to go through what I went through.

“So, at Boxwood, we provide an alternative high school experience via community connections, mentoring, employment and educational services,” she continued. “Our young people take their high school proficiency exam and earn their high school diploma that way. Our young people are mostly involved in the foster care and juvenile system. To me, they are all champions waiting for someone to see them for who they are and to support them through their life journeys. Mutazz Maxwell’s parents saw it as a place where he could grow and make positive decisions.”

Thelusma-Chase said she was very pleased that Maxwell had been able to author a book and that he acquired his ServSafe certification in food handling, which could help him work at a five-star restaurant someday.

“Mutazz shared that he would love to live in a world where there’s no cancer. I thought that was profound,” Thelusma-Chase said. “He also shared that he enjoyed cooking, so I proposed that he should collaborate with staff and another youth to write a cookbook. The twist is that the cookbook had to have things that you would find at a food pantry — many local pantries provide meat, fruit and vegetables.

“The food also should not require a stove to prepare, because, if someone is homeless, they should be able to also prepare some of the food as well with a rice cooker, microwave, slow cooker, electric grill, etc. Mutazz also had a chance to receive his ServSafe in the program and shadowed a local chef in creating healthy recipes.”

Thelusma-Chase hopes the book’s influence will be a positive one and added that it was on the Boxwood website for download.

“I’m hoping that it can be updated periodically with food pantry information and new recipes,” said Thelusma-Chase. “I’m hoping to see healing through food. I’ve seen the impact of the nutrition class that we host on Zoom. It’s impacting our youths’ food selections, where we work with a nutritionist on these projects.

“Before COVID, Mutazz was going to attend community events and prepare some of the recipes,” she continued. “I like the rice and beans recipe, which is a staple at local pantries, but Mutazz loves macaroni and cheese.”

The “Cooking With Champions” cookbook is available for download at www.boxwoodnj.org.

Photos Courtesy of Mutazz Maxwell and Marie Thelusma-Chase

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