A More Perfect Union: Denver chef teaches sick kids to grow and grill healthy food

Chef teaches sick kids how to cook

In our ongoing series A More Perfect Union, we show how what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us. In this installment, we meet a Denver chef who's getting kids to eat what they usually hate: vegetables.

More from the series: 

Chef and restaurant owner Troy Guard is sharing his love of healthy food with children from a Denver-area hospital, many of whom are fighting chronic illnesses.

Guard grew up in the 1970s and vegetables were definitely not to his childhood taste, reports CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen.  
"I grew up not really enjoying a lot of that stuff and my parents still today can't believe I'm a chef," Guard said.

From those roots, he's come to a different kind of roots—creating a garden at National Jewish Health to teach kids how to grow vegetables.

"We want to put good things into our bodies, and my hope to is that it will help with what's going on with them as well," Guard said.

These kids suffer from chronic illnesses including respiratory diseases like cystic fibrosis and asthma. They attend a special school at the hospital called Morgridge Academy where they learn how to manage their health in addition to classroom lessons. 

Many come from disadvantaged homes in neighborhoods where access to fresh produce is limited and dinner is often fast food. Guard believes better food can mean better health.

Chef Troy Guard teaches his students how to grow healthy vegetables.  CBS News

"Some of them may not have the financial background, they go eat fast food, because it is, you know, cheaper, quicker, easier to get, but this is going to help their body, too," Guard said.

Jennifer McCullough is director of education, and still remembers a child telling her how Doritos were a health food.
"And he's like, 'because you eat them with ranch dressing like a salad.' So you know, to go from that to what the kids are doing behind me is pretty phenomenal," McCullough said.

Guard then takes the children from garden to grill at one of his 11 restaurants, teaching them the fine -- or for them, more like the fun -- art of cooking. 

"We made the recipes, so they could make it with their families, and it's not too hard, all of them are within 20 to 30 minutes, and they're actually very tasty," Guard said.

According to Guard, the kids love cooking in the restaurant. He even got them their own chef jacket with their names.

Amya Rucker is one of his star students who suffers from asthma.

Amya Rucker makes her favorite recipe, meatloaf from scratch.  CBS News

Asked why she likes cooking, Amya said, "Because it makes me happy. Because when I'm in the kitchen it makes me feel really good and I'm not just sitting down and having my brain being lazy."

Now, she has a favorite recipe: meatloaf from scratch.

"We have egg, carrots, zucchini, ground beef, onion," Amya said, listing off the ingredients for the meatloaf.

Wearing her chef jacket has inspired quite a dream for the 9-year-old.  

"I want to get rich and have my own mansion," she said.  "I'll be there every day--every day to cook."

"I'm excited to see what they can do and if I can reward them or impact them, somehow, I think they'll always remember that guy who taught us to do this, and I think that's pretty cool," Guard said. 

Like so many good things in life it's started with the seed of an idea, now it's just growing and growing.