Program Teaches Emerging Chefs Food Justice, Cooking Skills

By JILLIAN LYNCH, Daily News-Record

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — For a culinary summer program at a local high school, there can never be too many cooks in the kitchen.

On the Road Collaborative, a nonprofit afterschool and summer enrichment program – aimed at closing “achievement gaps” for underprivileged students – offers a summer career and technical education program in the culinary arts.

Groups of middle and high school students meet daily with specialized instructors from On the Road to learn kitchen safety, cooking skills and they also learn about “food justice” — the drive to create an equitable system for sourcing food and labor in the industry.

“The students are learning about labor and food waste and food sourcing and food systems,” said Kristen Grimshaw, Emerging Chefs program specialist. “(They’re learning) about climate change and how the food system relates to climate change and things like how workers are treated within the food system, so wages and equity.”

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Each day of the program, students prepare a meal together that they eat for lunch.

“We’re cooking an amazing (mix) of things and they taste really good,” said Aron Medhin, a rising sophomore at Harrisonburg High School. “It’s really creative, too.”

One day, the students prepared a Mediterranean-themed meal, with falafel, a vegetarian dish made with chickpeas, chopped vegetable and yogurt salad and chicken made with a mixture of spices.

“(I like to cook) maybe like vegan stuff, but any new dishes are really fun to make, because they’re new experiences,” Medhin said.

Dividing up the work to make the meal, each student – like cooks in a restaurant kitchen – had a specific job to do. Like bees in a hive, students swerved around the kitchen classroom space within Harrisonburg High School.

“There’s a recipe and every one of us has a task and we just read the recipe,” said Dennis Duarte, a rising HHS senior in the Emerging Chefs program.

Some of the students chopped vegetables for the yogurt sauce, others cleaned chicken pieces and others blended spices for the falafel.

During the week, the students go on field trips, like a scavenger hunt at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market.

One of the first programs of On the Road — created over seven years ago — Natalie Aleman, a rising junior at Harrisonburg High School, said she has been involved with the Emerging Chefs program since she was in the fifth grade.

“It’s different now. I used to, I was thinking of becoming a little chef, own a little (restaurant,) getting a whole lot of experience in it,” Aleman said. “Since I joined a program called JROTC, that got me more into the military.”

All of the programs at On the Road are educational by nature. Kids can sign up for extended programs that meet after school for weeks on end, according to On the Road President and Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed.

“This is one of our staple programs,” Reed said. “It was one of our first career enrichments and our most popular.”

William Gutierez, rising freshman at HHS, is in the program because he is an aspiring chef.

“What I want to do for the future, is I want to save up money for a food truck. And then when I get a food truck, I’m going to save up for a restaurant and own a restaurant,” Gutierez said.

Not just a program for students who want to become career chefs, many students, like rising freshman at HHS Samuel Abebe, said they simply want to learn to cook for themselves and their families.

“I just want to cook,” Abebe said.

“A lot of these kids, they took it home,” Reed said. “This program gives them the skills to be independent.”

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