By Anne Laufe
For the Hollywood Star News
Home economics classes have gone the way of the rotary telephone and the typewriter. As budgets have shrunk over the past two decades, most schools in the Portland area have done away with home ec, leaving students with no formal training in how to shop and cook for themselves.
Now, faced with elevated obesity rates and a generation of students graduating from high school with no real job skills, one local organization is serving up a robust portion of food preparation classes to Portland teens.
Abby Herrera began developing The Portland Kitchen three years ago, after working for a local social services agency where she felt that the needs of Portland’s older children weren’t being met. She wanted to put together a program that taught teenagers life skills, and realized that she could also address healthy eating habits at the same time.
“This is such a foodie town, so it’s surprising that there are so few culinary programs for teens,” says Herrera.
With the help of culinary director Arielle Clark and assistant Joey Ogo, Herrera launched The Portland Kitchen in October of 2013. The after-school program, open to students in grades nine through 12, meets twice a week throughout the school year. The Portland Kitchen will also offer an intensive six-week summer program.
The 20 students in the initial cohort meet in the basement of St. Matthew’s Church on Northeast Prescott Street and 112th Avenue. Because of the proximity to Parkrose High School, most of the students in the program come from Parkrose, but others travel from Madison, Grant, Clackamas and Mt. Scott Learning Center.
Clark and Ogo first taught the students kitchen safety and basic knife skills. They then moved on to baking, breakfast (including how to make omelettes and crepes), appetizers, and sauces. Future topics to be covered include soups and stocks, kitchen math and measurement, budgeting and menu creation.
“In every class they cook something, and in every class they eat something,” said Clark, acknowledging how important food is in the lives of teenagers.
Guest demonstrations and speakers are a regular part of the program. In the fall, a chef from Screen Door showed the students how to make a pork belly appetizer. Several community dinners, to which the students’ family members are invited, are scheduled throughout the year.
Students have also studied for and passed the exam to earn their Oregon Food Handler’s card. In January, they begin preparing for the ServSafe certificate, a more comprehensive food and beverage safety program administered by the National Restaurant Association. Attaining the ServSafe certificate will make students even more attractive to potential employers.
Executive director Herrera says that students will leave the program with tangible achievements, including the ServSafe certification.
“They’ll also gain ‘soft skills’, the intangibles, like showing up on time and learning how to collaborate. And they’ll get those feelings of success and pride from accomplishing something,” she said.
Some of the students want to work in restaurants after completing the program. Others, like Parkrose senior A.J. Albert, want to learn how to cook so they can take care of themselves and, in the future, their families.
Katie Lauderdale, SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) site coordinator at Madison, helped connect students with The Portland Kitchen. She praised Herrera for taking students’ interests into consideration when developing the after school program.
“Through The Portland Kitchen, students will learn that there are family-wage jobs in the culinary field and that there are ways to access these jobs without working your way up through a restaurant,” Lauderdale said. “I also hope they’ll gain a love of healthy home cooked food that they will share with their families and peers.”
For more information, visit theportlandkitchen.org.