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Growing supper at Fir Ridge Community Learning Center


Fir Ridge Community Learning Center Coordinator Anna Sommo, center, readies plants for planting by Fir Ridge Campus students. FRC students, neighbors and community members revitalized their garden plots to produce fruits and vegetables for cooking classes to be held this spring and summer.
During regular work parties Fir Ridge Campus sophomore Anjelica Alanis and senior Jacob Bartling get some weeding done between rain showers.
Responsible for garden maintenance, FRC students, from left, Alanis, Bartling, sophomore Michael McVae Jr., sophomore John Kellebrew and junior Emily Haslauer, take the job seriously; most of the time. In January, neighbors helped plant fruit trees for the community at the Fir Ridge Campus site.
Public schools are no longer just a learning hub for youngsters. Thanks to grants and bond measures, programs like SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) and others have transformed neighborhood schools into entire community learning centers, utilizing the evening-empty buildings for adult and family enrichment. More recently this effort has spilled out beyond the school walls into the surrounding grounds where students, teachers and staff have planted gardens to teach both science subjects and nutrition to students. In the David Douglas School District, the Fir Ridge Campus' after-school program, Fir Ridge Community Learning Center, has introduced garden education to their after-school curriculum, creating a community garden that will both teach participating students how food grows and likewise instruct families and parents on how to handle the natural produce.

The Fir Ridge Community Learning Center was formed thanks to a 21st Century Learning Center Grant, a federal grant that supports the creation of community centers to provide after-school academics, particularly to students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools. The program also offers literacy and other educational services to the families of participating children. Recently Fir Ridge, in conjunction with Catholic charity El Programa Hispano, received another $6,000 grant from the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, enabling them to construct a community garden on the site.

While the gardens will help educate students on food sources, the project's intent remains community-inclusive. Anna Sommo, after-school coordinator for Fir Ridge, described their first planting effort in January, an orchard with two each of apple, pear, cherry and plum trees, as “planting trees for the whole neighborhood.”

Saturday, April 10, kicked off Fir Ridge's gardening effort in earnest. With the help of Fir Ridge students, families and staff, and groups from David Douglas High School, Hands On Greater Portland and Barlow High School, volunteers built and filled raised-bed plots and installed irrigation. While a garden has existed on the site previously, the grants helped to revitalize the land for more active use. Thus far garlic, herbs, peas, eggplant, radishes and greens have been planted.

The after-school classes planned around the garden will satisfy the directives of all supporting sponsors. El Programa Hispano seeks to expand educational opportunities into the community. Their grant, combined with the 21st Century grant, helped give Fir Ridge the resources to open up the school to their neighbors for community education. The East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District seeks to encourage conservation efforts through education. Planting trees, teaching organic farming and demonstrating to students the effort involved in producing food connects them to the land, fostering respect for our natural resources. Sommo pointed out that natural and responsible gardening also helps control erosion and stormwater runoff.

Starting in May, the Fir Ridge Learning Center has been providing patio gardening classes, an opportunity for people to learn about natural gardening and take home some supplies to make their own pot gardens. Pot gardening is more accessible to apartment dwellers or those with limited space.

Jared Goodman, the cooking instructor of both the Fir Ridge student after-school class entitled “Crops, Cooking and Culinary Careers,” and an adult and family cooking class taking place at Floyd Light Middle School last month, emphasized that understanding the process of food production is just as important as how we consume it. Both of his classes focus on what he termed “critical food literacy.” “Teaching people how to think critically about where their food is coming from will help them determine what is healthy and what is not healthy,” he explained.

The Crops, Cooking and Culinary Careers class first convened April 13, and takes place at the Fir Ridge campus on Mondays and Wednesdays from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. The lessons alternate weekly between gardening, taught by instructor Brady Lang, and cooking with Goodman. As of press time, some negotiations still remained over the students' access to the Fir Ridge kitchen, so the class lessons began with concentrating on raw foods, salads or anything that did not require pots, pans and heat sources.

The adult and family class that started in May using the Floyd Light Middle School kitchen are taught exclusively by Goodman and has a more ambitious curriculum centering on the health benefits of whole foods cooking. A four-week class meeting every Monday from 5:30 to 8 p.m., the first week's lesson concentrated on the differences between whole foods versus processed foods. The second week addressed the seasonality of foods, the third week spotlights buzzwords in the food markets, and the fourth week will send students home with meal planning strategies. “Each week they are gaining knowledge and skills that will allow them to know how to source and cook healthier foods,” Goodman claimed.

Sourcing foods from co-ops and farmers markets, Goodman will emphasize buying seasonal foods and bulk items to help cut costs. Another goal of the family cooking class is to incorporate all family members in the process of producing meals. “When everybody has a role in the meal-making process it will take a lot of the strain off the parent,” he said.

Neither class will concentrate heavily on the specific nutritional science of food, rather they encourage families to cook for themselves using healthy whole foods instead of opting for additive-rich processed foods. Though farmers markets and whole food cooking may be more expensive than buying a box of sugar- and preservative-laden processed foods, Goodman justified, “a big part of it is that whole foods are healthy but the world we live in is set up right now against us. Processed food is subsidized so it is cheaper to get a bag of pre-mashed mashed potatoes than it is to buy a potato. In the class we talk about some of the health repercussions of eating processed foods so I try to emphasize hidden cost in food because in the long term the health costs of eating poorly is going to outweigh the farmers market cost.” He also pointed out that farmers markets do accept WIC and EBT, (Women/Infants/Children and Electronic Benefits Transfer - state issued food stamps) government programs that provide additional funding for food purchases.

Yet in the end, give a person a potato they eat for a day, teach them how to grow a potato…well you know how it goes. As the Fir Ridge beds produce edible results, the students participating in the Crops, Cooking and Culinary careers class will reap the benefits. Though this class only runs during the school year, the garden's bounty will not go to seed. The school also recently received a small grant from East Portland Neighborhood Organization for a summer program where students short on their science credits will learn garden science and cooking. This class will welcome non-Fir Ridge students as well.

Coordinator Anna Sommo emphasized that many volunteer opportunities remain available, specifically those assisting the summer program. “If anyone is interested in volunteering or being a part of it in any way, we are really open to that.” Those interested in the summer program can contact Sommo at 503-256-6530 x8159. Those interested in Goodman's adult cooking class at Floyd Light can contact Scott Read, parent outreach coordinator, at 503-442-8996 or

Fir Ridge Campus, at 11215 S.E. Market St., is part of the David Douglas School District. The FRC Web site is
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