The Portland Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that teaches cooking skills to teens attending Madison and Parkrose High Schools, kills many birds with one stone, (before stuffing them and roasting them in the oven).
“We have such a low on-time graduation rate (Oregon’s on-time graduation rate is the worst in the country) and a high obesity rate, and our youth unemployment rate is really high as well,” said TPK founder Abigail Herrera, “I was thinking about how I could effect change in all of those areas and I collided with this idea.” It was her final project to earn her MBA at Willamette University. “I didn’t think it was going to come to anything, then I started doing the market research at the schools and I realized that the students really wanted this program.”
Schools once offered cooking electives—commonly known as home economics—some, such as Franklin High School, still do. Madison and Parkrose High Schools do not. Even before schools offered home economics, most young people learned how to cook through the preparation of family meals. Today, fast food and heat-and-go processed foods have become a substitute for cooking in many busy households. A 2013 Gallup poll discovered that though 76 percent of Americans think fast food is not good for them, half of us still eat fast food at least weekly. They found that young adults ages 18-29 eat the most fast food. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of adolescents in the United States aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from five percent in 1980 to nearly 21 percent in 2012. Proponents of whole food cooking (cooking from scratch with identifiable ingredients) point to the processed and fast food trends as responsible for this jump.
Coinciding with these events, the entry-level jobs most teenagers use to enter the workforce has dwindled with the struggling economy. Competition for such jobs has become crowded with older, experienced workers, who some employers prefer over kids who require more training. According to the US Department of Labor Statistics, only 51.9 percent of youth aged 16-24 were employed in July 2014. The largest majority of those employed, 25 percent, worked in the hospitality and leisure industry, which includes food services. With those statistics, it begs the question whether home economics had more real value than previously assumed.
Herrera chose to open The Portland Kitchen to students from Parkrose and Madison High Schools for four reasons, their proximity to each other, their high free or reduced lunch rates, their low on-time graduation rates, and their large populations. She conducted student surveys, held an experimental one-day trial run of the program, and conducted a focus group to gauge interest before the launch.
She earned her first grant for the program in July of 2011, incorporated as a 501(3)c nonprofit and recruited a board of directors in 2012, and raised funds throughout with the help of Whole Foods, Willamette Week, Food Services of America, Spirit Mountain, Emerick Construction, and other local businesses.
Instead of renting a kitchen at one of the schools, she opted to collaborate with St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, located at 11229 N.E. Prescott, for their flexible hours and neutral location. She hired Chef Arielle Clark to teach the classes in September of 2013, and together they recruited their first cohort of 14-18 year old students. The Portland Kitchen officially opened Oct. 3, 2013.
The Portland Kitchen offers two programs, the afterschool program, which takes place on Mondays and Thursdays from 4 to 6:30 p.m. October through May, and the condensed seven week summer program of three and a half hour classes held Monday through Thursday. As of the printing of this article, The Portland Kitchen is halfway through their second afterschool program.
Though The Portland Kitchen does provide elements of job training, Herrera emphasized that it is not a vocational program. Instead, it teaches the skills needed to get a job through the practical skill of cooking. “How to show up on time, collaborate, be respectful, all those things that carry through every job you will ever have,” said Herrera. “It is definitely not like a culinary school.” Students receive evaluations, but not grades, and must have an 85 percent attendance rate to earn a letter of recommendation from Clark. Students who have perfect attendance for three months earn a boning knife kit.
Chef Clark likes to start the first day of the program with an experiment. “I give them a recipe (something simple like cookies) and don’t help them much and it is always a disaster. Part of me wants to show them, but when you are in the kitchen you learn more when you make a mistake than when you get it right.”
Though the cooking IQ of new students varies, they are all taught the basics at first: knife skills, how to read a recipe, and the different types of heat used to cook. Using these fundamentals, they learn how to prepare soups, stocks, grains, vegetables, meats and baked goods. They learn the different methods used to create varying flavors from the same ingredient and some basic butchery. To give her students a sense of ownership, Clark encourages them to create their own recipes.
Nutrition, budgeting and kitchen safety are themes that carry throughout the curriculum. “There is a misconception that cooking your own food at home costs more money versus going out to buy something from fast food because it is cheap,” said Clark. “It actually is true if you don’t know how to cook because you will end up wasting a lot of product. That is good to know especially for this group who do not have big budgets. Learning how to cook foods they are able to find in their home is important.” The Portland Kitchen provides all the food and materials for their students. Rossi Farms and nonprofit Urban Gleaners donate food, but otherwise food for the class is purchased at farmers markets or grocery stores.
The curriculum has evolved somewhat from their inaugural 2013-2014 school year. “The first year is always a bit of trial and error,” said Clark, who found it necessary to adjust her teaching techniques after the first run. Clark, a culinary school graduate, had worked in a variety of restaurants, from the large restaurant group Sodexho Marriott, where she worked on cruise ships, to fast food where she worked as a regional manager for Jack-in-the-Box, to the small local East Burnside favorite Screen Door. Most recently, she worked in nutritional services at the north Portland Trillium Charter School where she taught basic food skills to third through fifth graders, but no experience quite prepared her for working with teenagers. “What they need from you is to respect their autonomy and give them space to figure things out. A lot of it was me learning when to step back,” she said.
Clark also reiterated the difference between The Portland Kitchen and an academic culinary program. “I brought my education in the culinary arts and I thought I would teach in this way and then realized it’s not really what kids want. There are some things I teach that are more technical but (The Portland Kitchen) is more about showing up, working as a team, communicating and being respectful to one another. The skill of cooking is a craft, and it takes a long time to develop that craft, so they learn the basics. They are not going to walk out of here and be the next star chef. They might, but that is not the whole point.”
Towards the end of the program students practice ‘back of the house versus front of the house’, (cooking versus serving) and study for the ServeSafe certification. While most Portland Kitchen students earn their Oregon Food Handler’s card, the ServeSafe is a nationally recognized certification good for five years that demands more knowledge of food safety and is required for food jobs at places like hospitals, large corporations and colleges.
The Student Experience
Recruitment for the school year program starts at the end of August and runs through September. Summer recruitment starts in mid-April through June. Herrera and Clark visit Madison and Parkrose High Schools to talk to students at lunchtime and invite those interested to one of four informational sessions held at different times to ensure everyone can attend. During the informational session, Clark gives potential students a tour of the kitchen, a list of interview questions, and volunteers help interview students one on one looking to gauge their availability, motivation, and commitment, the first being the most challenging.
“We didn’t ask enough questions about availability so we ran into some attrition issues in the first run of the program,” said Herrera, “but we fixed those questions and we had a 95 percent retention rate and 89 percent attendance rate for summer.”
As for motivation, students come to The Portland Kitchen for a number of reasons. Some students are passionate about food and want to pursue food as a career. This year one 14-year old student aspires to be a butcher. “There are students who come in and are in love with food and that is what they really want to do and then we have some kids who come in and they don’t know how to cook anything, their mom won’t let them touch anything in the kitchen,” said Clark. One student in last year’s program joined The Portland Kitchen because she was going to graduate in June and did not want to go to college without knowing how to cook for herself. She now works at The Portland Kitchen helping to clean up after classes. Another former student returned to teach a pasta making class to new students.
Once a month, Clark has a one-on-one sit down with the students to talk about their progress. Afterwards, she will call the parents to discuss the same. Some families have grown close to the organization, offering to help teach classes or to share their family recipes. The Portland Kitchen holds three family dinners during the program to invite family members to enjoy their child’s newfound skills. Since the program closes during winter and spring breaks, they coincide the family dinners before breaks and hold one before graduation.
So far, 73 students have participated in the program, 44 females and 29 males. Of the 52 youths who have completed the afterschool and summer program thus far, over half earned the letter of recommendation and left with a ServeSafe card. Since it costs money to take the ServeSafe test, only those who score 75 percent or better on a practice test are given the real thing.
The Nonprofit Challenge
Herrera, who worked as marketing director at the Boys and Girls Club before opening The Portland Kitchen, cites the challenges of the nonprofit world as limiting to what they can and cannot offer their students. However, the level of interest their program has stoked within the food industry has earned them many volunteers. The members of the board of directors include a food activist, a caterer, and a food distributer. They have also collaborated with other nonprofits, volunteering to cater the Portland Fruit Tree project’s volunteer celebration and working at the nonprofit pub The Oregon Public House. In 2014, The Portland Kitchen had 59 volunteers come through their program.
Larger companies have also pitched in. Whole Foods shoppers will recognize The Portland Kitchen as an option to donate their bag credit. In April, the Whole Foods trolley, which visits food deserts to sell discounted food, parks at The Portland Kitchen. Students will work in teams, get a $20 budget to shop in the cart and come back to the kitchen to make a meal entrée. They will then get a panel of judges to award the winning dish, which will eventually go into The Portland Kitchen cookbook.
“It feels good to be a part of something that is doing something good for young people,” said Clark. Though they have attracted a surprising number of volunteers offering to help teach classes or interview potential students, Herrera welcomes more partners. They currently do not have any meat donors, and as of this writing, Herrera singlehandedly manages the business end of the program.
Dinner is Served
At the completion of every class students sit down to enjoy a meal together, something traditional home economics classes and even some pay for cooking programs often lack time for. “It is so important to sit down and enjoy the food you made and everyone worked hard to put it there,” said Clark, “that is the best part. You sit across from each other and eat together.” According to studies collected by the Purdue University Center for Families, kids who participate in regular family meals are less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs, are more courteous and conversational, are more connected to their families, have better eating habits and have improved academic success.
Visit www.theportlandkitchen.org or www.facebook.com/ThePDXkitchen for more information about the program. For partnership of volunteer opportunities, contact Abby Herrera, at email@example.com or call 503-610-3520.