On a rainy November afternoon in Portland, Oregon, 21 high school students took the food handlers’ exam in a church basement. The usual chattering of nearly two dozen young people dropped to a silence as they worked. Sitting upstairs, I could tell when they had finished by the sounds of laughter coming from the basement kitchen.
These teenagers are participating in the Portland Kitchen, “Oregon’s only free culinary after-school program for youth,” according to founder Abigail Herrera. Although the students learn to make crepes, stir-fries, and to pass the food handlers’ exam, Herrera does not consider the program a cooking school.
“We are primarily a job skills program,” she explains. And she isn’t just talking about working as a line cook or sous chef in a restaurant. The program focuses just as much on soft skills like showing up on time, attendance, and working in teams. Teaching youth to follow and alter recipes also reinforces basic skills like reading and math.
“Food is a universal medium,” says Paul Dahm, the executive director of Brainfood, the Washington, D.C. program after which the Portland Kitchen is modeled. “Not everyone is into cooking, but everybody eats.” Brainfood has been teaching kids how to show up on time, as well as how to make healthy, delicious meals, for the past 15 years, reaching thousands of students. On the other side of the country, the Portland Kitchen has had 73 participants since its launch in October 2013, including the current cohort. As far as either Dahm or Herrera knows, the two programs are unique in the nation.
Both programs are centered around the idea of “youth development through food,” and Dahm, like Herrera, adamantly rejects the suggestion that he runs a cooking school. Unlike programs like the Sprouts Cooking Club in San Francisco, which prepares youth from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds for a career in the culinary arts, neither the Portland Kitchen nor Brainfood sees that as their goal, any more than a basketball camp for struggling youth would claim to prepare participants for careers in the NBA.
For Torianne Troen, an 18-year-old senior with faded blue and purple streaks in her hair and a stud in her right nostril, the decision to participate in the Portland Kitchen’s program certainly wasn’t about a career. She doesn’t like sports and had never been involved with any after-school activities before she saw Herrera giving a presentation at her school. “I love food,” she says, adding that she was trying to improve her own eating habits. She jumped at the chance to learn more about cooking.
Students at both the Portland Kitchen and Brainfood are introduced to professionals whose work is related to food, ranging from restaurant owners and chefs, to food writers and photographers. On the day of my visit, a vegan personal chef gave a presentation to the students. At Brainfood, food is also a way to discuss social justice—the organization recently invited a representative from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to talk to students about tomato pickers in Florida.
The programs also give students, most of whom have never traveled abroad, a chance to explore other cultures. This culinary tourism has already been a highlight of Troen’s first few months in the program. “When we made Middle Eastern food, that was awesome,” she says. In fact, it’s a cultural experience more than a culinary sense. Troen says one of the best things about the program is that everyone comes from very different backgrounds.
At the two high schools the Portland Kitchen recruits from, more than 25 percent of the students are English Language Learners, and more than 60 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Brainfood, which now has three locations around the D.C. area, targets a similar demographic.
When Brainfood started, Dahm says, there were students who obviously came because they didn’t have enough to eat at home. Both programs are entirely free for participants; Herrera opted not to have scholarships or a sliding scale fee structure for the Portland Kitchen because she was concerned that would create a stigma for students who couldn’t pay.
Despite the clear intangible benefits students gained from being in the kitchen, it can be difficult to measure the exact impact participation has on the students’ future lives and careers, even for established programs like Brainfood. But Dahm says some graduates have gone on to careers in the food industry.
In Portland, 73 percent of the graduates have received a food handler’s permit and 63 percent have participated in mock interviews with the HR department from a local grocery store; three prior graduates have come back to work as kitchen assistants. All participants have to volunteer at events ranging from catering fundraising dinners for local non-profits to teaching cooking classes at the food bank. Graduates of Brainfood’s cooking program can participate in a second year of the program, in which they teach adults in their community how to cook.
Dahm thinks these opportunities to teach adults, whether in a formal class arranged by Brainfood or the Portland Kitchen or at home, when the teens show their parents a new cooking technique, give participants something more valuable than the ability to make pasta from scratch. Too often, Dahm says, teens, especially those from low-income communities, suffer from social biases that saddle them with low expectations. Teaching adults gives them the opportunity to be seen as leaders in their community. “The most powerful thing is seeing teens as leaders,” Dahm says.
Cover photo: Torianne Troen prepares a quinoa stuffed lady apple at The Portland Kitchen. All photos by Emily Liedel.