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Jeff Smith didn't have to look any farther than his community center photography classroom to see the results of America's poor eating habits: fidgety students, their concentration shot by a sugar buzz.

Smith, a veteran chef with ties to the local restaurant community, enlisted the help of food-industry contacts, including Domingo Vazquez, chef of the Four Seasons Clift Hotel in San Francisco.The result: the Home Alone Cooking Series, a free program in which local chefs help inner-city latchkey kids learn a new attitude toward nutrition.

"The concept is to stay organic and to stay as fresh and clean as possible," says Smith, who's unrelated to the cookbook-writing Jeff Smith known as the Frugal Gourmet.

At a recent session at the nonprofit East Oakland Youth Development Center, other youngsters watched while 12-year-old Jason Simon screwed up his face in concentration and painstakingly diced tomatoes.

"Watch your fingers. Keep them curved under," Smith cautioned as Simon wielded a sharp blade.

The tomatoes went into a skillet sizzling with olive oil to be cooked into fresh pasta sauce with basil and garlic.

"What we're doing is re-engineering our kids' minds basically to think toward fruit, to think toward eggs, an omelette, something quick that doesn't take an extraordinary amount of time," said Regina Jackson Rasheed, the center's executive director.

Like many other youngsters across the nation, Simon used to snack on potato chips and soda to fill the void until supper after getting home from school.

Now, however, Simon has some new dishes in his culinary repertoire, along with a new appreciation for such hitherto untasted dishes as multi-grain pancakes and ground turkey burgers.

"I think it's great," his mother, Verlinda Simon, said as she watched Jason and his brother, 11-year-old Andre.

Some meals are a tougher sell than others, like the turkey chili with black beans that the novice cooks had to be coaxed into trying.

"I miss grease," muttered 12-year-old Sotonia Childs.

But Jason and Andre are converts.

"I didn't think I'd like the vegetables, but I do," Andre said as he polished off some zucchini.

Participants in the 10-week course, which began in February and will be offered again in May, also are taught how to serve, how to shop and how to navigate the baffling array of cutlery that comes with finer dining.

The idea, Rasheed said, is to show youngsters the strengths of their community as well as the possibilities of the world outside.

"They may not necessarily have the money to go there now, but we want them to think bigger," she said.