Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Laura Dewell, Executive Director, Green Plate Special

Laura Dewell works tirelessly to share her years of knowledge from owning and running successful restaurants with lower-income community kids in the pursuit of Food Justice

Photo: Madeline Crowley

There’s so many reasons to feel that you have less opportunities but in reality, absolutely in reality, when you’re given an opportunity, take it.

What made you choose the Central Area for the Green Plate Special project?

I was looking farther south when an opportunity arose with Marty Liebowitz of the Madrona Company, a family-owned contractor/builder and property owners. I thought it could be a good fit, being on the edge of the Central District but I wondered if Madrona was the demographic I was looking to serve in the first stage of our project. In reality, Madrona K-8 School has the highest rates of subsidized lunches in the city. Roughly 80% of the youth in the school are youth of color and many are financially struggling.  So, it was an organic process; and it came to us in a really special way.

The Green Plate Special project teaches kids how to grow and tend food, but also about nutrition.

            That’s correct, because 50% of what we do is in the garden and the rest is in the kitchen.  The garden now is a temporary site, we’re moving farther south at the end of this year. We planned to build a kitchen in this garden but funding didn’t happen at that point. This kitchen now is in the Madrona Presbyterian Church. Since you don’t see an on-site kitchen, people have the impression it’s a youth garden program or a community garden. It is very much a community garden but our focus is on middle school youth. They get to experience the process of planting through harvest and then going into the kitchen to cook.  

A teenaged Laura with her dog. Collection of Laura Dewell.

Green Plate Special works with youth for three or four sessions, or over a period of six months, or in the summer program. In some programs kids don’t always see everything through fruition, instead it’s the process of introducing them to the garden. A lot of folks in the city don’t have any experience with food gardens.

Although our focus tends to be on low-income families, this lack of garden knowledge is across the board nationally. It’s an issue of not knowing where your food comes from. As well as not being aware that the food you put inside your body makes a difference to your health.  It seems for middle- and upper-income people there’s more understanding of nutrition and food. It is a Social Justice issue and a Food Justice issue that lower income families don’t have this information nor have the ability to access nutritious food. Combine this with exhaustive days and overwhelming lives – they’re not getting information to make their own choices. 

Laura as a child. Collection Laura Dewell.
To counter that, we expose kids to fun, interesting things in the garden and kitchen that integrates math and science. It’s experiential learning.  So once the garden has gone through harvest, then we take it to the kitchen and cook it together.

There are lots of great programs in our community that do food gardening with kids through Elementary and High School but not really in Middle School.  The problem is that it doesn’t move into the kitchen. You also have programs that feature cooking, but they’re not necessarily integrated with the garden. 

Our experience is that our kids have done a community garden project and grew kale or collards but they’re not eating it. They’re just growing it, for money or whatever, but they’re not going through the whole process from garden to table. 

Photo: Madeline Crowley
 What have you heard from kids who have made it through the process, they’ve grown the food and gotten to eat it themselves? 

            At this point, I’d say we have a 95% rate of kids actually getting that “Aha!” moment of like, “Oh! This is actually good!”  The program has an expectation that students taste one bite of something and they continue to taste that same food at least five times. That’s worked, and the reaction is amazing, actually.

We were just in the garden yesterday with a group that comes for four weeks and this was their first garden day. They were in the kitchen a week before and the resistance to what we were talking about with food was pretty high: “I don’t go outside!” “I don’t eat carrots!”  “Our family doesn’t eat cherries!” and so on, “Our family doesn’t…”  So, I’m saying, ‘Well, okay, but you said you’re not allergic to it, so we’re going to try it.’  Then, they were eating sugar snap peas for their first time. The next week in the garden they asked, “Are there any more sugar snap peas?”  And I could say, “Yes. I brought ‘em just for you!” 
Photo: Madeline Crowley
 Kids had also said: “Carrots?  I don’t eat carrots out of the ground! That’s disgusting.”  I explain that we wash them first! Really, a little light bulb goes on for them.  So you wash these carrots and they’re beautiful. What they thought was dirty is startlingly beautiful. Then, I couldn’t stop them from pulling them all out!  “Can I take this home?  Can I take that home?” 

I told them about purple carrot and white carrots, and they said, ‘Oh, purple carrots, that’s disgusting!’”  Suddenly it was totally different when we washed them and brought them to the table as part of a snack with cucumbers and sugar snap peas.  

Sometimes we do foods that they’re familiar with, to be respectful of the foods that they’re already eating. These are foods that they like as kids; foods we all liked as kids. So, we adapt those favorites and throw some new things into it.  We always make homemade ranch dressing with yogurt, lots of herbs and garlic. It tastes like ranch dressing, but it has yogurt instead of sour cream and buttermilk and they’re amazed.  They go from total resistance to, “Oh, this is good!”  “That was the best class I’ve ever had!”  “I wanna do that again!”  “I like your program because you let us taste stuff.  I do other cooking classes, and they don’t let us taste things.” 

Photo: Madeline Crowley
 You hook them in with the cooking more than with the growing, because there is resistance to being outside with the bees, and bugs, and worms, and it’s dirty. So we plant with them – they plant seeds, they harvest, and then they really get into it. They forget their attitudes in the moment, and it’s really amazing.  They might not take that with them immediately but they have had that spark, that little “Hey!” that will at some point be an opportunity.  It’s about giving them opportunity and empowering them to make their own choices. 

If they continue to eat the way they’ve always eaten?  Then, that is their choice, but it’s the beginnings of an educated choice, as opposed to not having that information. And it’s a move away from believing that it’s dirty in the garden, that food needs to be sanitized, everything needs to be sterile and everything needs to be packaged.  When we try to tell them the difference between packaged food and food straight from the garden. Then that brings up what’s in season, to eat what’s in season.
Photo: Madeline Crowley
 What is your ultimate goal for the program?

I still have huge goals for the program; we’re putting a huge amount of work into it right now.  The new location on Rainier Avenue will have a kitchen on-site. We’ll have chickens, and bees and a greenhouse. It’ll also be the showcase for the program as it’s being funded. It’ll be a showcase for what we’re doing, which is teaching math, science, nutrition, and empowerment and Food Justice to middle school youth and other kids in the community. 

That will help lead to small programs in other communities that will be run by people in that community. We’re creating a package – a garden and portable kitchen next to a middle school or a community center that middle school youth can access. 

We can expand this into high school and lower elementary as well. Still, it’s important to keep the educational curriculum focus on middle school. So my goal is to support schools with this curriculum. Even though schools say they understand the importance of nutrition, it’s not happening. It’s not happening in the lunchroom, it’s barely happening in the classroom.  I have no judgment on what the nutrition people and the folks that are serving the kids are tasked with; that is very political.  It has to do with top-down ideas of where funding is coming from, what corporations say schools can and cannot do.  
Photo: Madeline Crowley
We know all of that.  While we’re not interested in becoming a political push, we can, with time get youth voices and eventually their families’ voices to say, “We want something better. We demand it, and we’re going to make changes.”

That means a lot of these wonderful little gardens connected to schools will actually be utilized. Generally, you go to these school gardens and they’re these sad little places because there’s nobody to help with it.  The poorer the school, there’s less money and less support from the PTA because those parents are working two jobs. They’d love to be part of their kid’s school but they don’t have the time. That’s the burden that they have, and the teachers’ burden.  So someone starts this little garden and the kids will plant something but there’s no one to water or tend to it. What the kids plant just dies and then it goes fallow. Then, during the summer when it’s should be at its height, there’s nobody there to look at it.

It’s great to say I’m interested in cooking and I’m interested in gardening, I’m interested in those issues. Yet, it’s another thing when someone says I have no interest in those things. Those are the kids that we want to touch as much as those who are interested. In our second year in Madrona School, they came to us twice a week during class time so every student had to be there. Initially, we had so much resistance and disinterest. Yet, by the second cooking class there was a huge difference in interest. By the end of the program, the attitude, the respect, the enjoyment was there. They had forgotten that they were way too cool for it. It was drastic. We touched a lot of lives. Some of those kids are coming back to us through other programs. They’re really proud that they can demonstrate what they’ve already learned to other kids. Even though this isn’t something that is necessarily going to be in their lives, they might not go out and garden. They might not be interested in cooking as a profession. Still, they are becoming aware of where their food comes from, and the importance of that, of what it means to eat locally and the health issues around food. It’s just little steps like that.

So, for anyone who’s never heard of Food Justice, can you speak about that? 

To me, Food Justice means having access to whole foods, being able to make that choice for yourself and for your family. It doesn’t necessarily mean the Grocery Outlet because those foods might be coming from far away, they might not have local produce. They might not have local or organic food they might carry a lot of packaged and prepared foods; but they do carry fresh foods and at a price folks can afford. It also means giving people the ability to make choices for themselves. 
Right now, society completely blames obese people for their health-related issues; it’s their fault; it’s problems of their own making, diabetes, heart-disease. Yes, they are making some of those choices and some people will never change. Still, when a child is becoming obese at the age of 6 that’s different because there’s not a thing that child can do about it.  When they get older those fat cells have already formed and a process has begun that’s hard to escape. 

Photo: Madeline Crowley
 Food Justice means that families understand there are certain foods they should start serving children when they’re very young. That they shouldn’t start feeding children solid food at the age of six months. That there is no nutritional value in fast food, pop or soda, there is none in processed food. They need to know that, but they’re not getting that information. We have people in this country, lots of them who are actually starving {for true nutrients} but they’re obese. 

How does that work, how can you be obese and starving at the same time? They’re given food for their meals by Welfare and wonderful organizations without federal funding who try to help by passing along fast food, processed food and cakes. It’s filling yet there’s no nutritional value. Bodies can’t properly process that food and it just fill the cells with junk. Then, healthy and whole foods are more expensive; fruits and vegetables are more expensive and therefore folks can’t afford to eat them although they would like to. There is no reason that fruits and vegetables and whole foods should be too expensive for our families to eat. 

Everyone should be able to afford fruits and vegetables. Food Justice means giving people the right to eat fresh vegetables and being able to cook with fresh food, and have access to correct nutrition information.

You touched on this earlier but why did you focus on the Central Area?

As the Central Area and south of it tend to be families of color, despite Seattle being liberal, we have a huge skew from white and black upper middle class and middle class to lower middle class people struggling financially. The lower middle class has high levels of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. In our community there’s a higher rate starting in elementary school of about 20-30% kids are overweight in the community of color. In the nation we’re about number three in that skew of what people of color are able to access in terms of healthy food, of what they know about nutrition as opposed to what upper middle class families have access to in terms of education and food.

Photo: Madeline Crowley
It sounds like what you’re saying is those differentials in food and education translate into different health outcomes for people of color in the Central Area?

That’s right. And their community leaders are trying to make change by talking to them about these issues. My understanding of the African-American food tradition is that the balance of vegetables to beef, chicken and pork, as well as how those vegetables are being prepared is not in balance with today’s lifestyle. So, there needs to be education from their own community and leaders in that community are trying. Still, there are reasons why people eat comfort food.

I thought this would be a good area to start with because there’s a lot going on in this area. There are also there are huge needs in the north end too with the Latino population. I chose this as a gut reaction to looking at these food and education issues for the populations in the Central Area. Then, really it was it matter of someone offering to create relationships in the Central Area to find where we could start this project. That was my focus and that had to do with trying to access those populations.

Photo: Madeline Crowley
 Can you tell a story of a kid who really understood what the program is trying to do?

So, we work with an after-school program out of Madrona School, it’s an African-American national service sorority. They have a branch in Seattle, there are wonderful women running this great group.

They took a chance on us our first winter and so we did a nutrition program of five sessions with girls. Their program focuses on math, science, and empowerment. It’s about communication and young women supporting each other in how they communicate. It’s a great program.

We came in with a nutrition program. We talked about {nutrition} labels. We did three sessions on portion sizes with all these activities and two cooking sessions. We brought in a frozen pizza and we talked about the calories in one pizza. What proportion that was for your day’s allotment of calories.  Then we compared that to making your own pizza. Next, the girls made the dough and had an amazing time. There were a lot of girls in that program who were on the edge of overweight and a few who were obese and struggling.

And it was all new to us. I asked how many of you guys eat breakfast? Only a few hands from 18 girls in the room went up. How many of you eat lunch? None of their hands went up. So, a lot of these girls are walking out the door for school and don’t eat until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. So I talked about what skipping meals does to your brain, to your health, and how that can cause health issues down the road. It’s not going to help them lose weight, if that’s their focus, because often they binge in the afternoon because they’re so hungry.  We talked about that and how cool it would be if they could take some healthy snacks to school instead. 

Photo: Madeline Crowley
 We talked about maybe packing a lunch for school, if that’s a possibility, and how that’s going to help you to have little meals for your brain. And 3 weeks later, they sent me a thank you letter from the whole group.  Victoria Ramirez, the head of the sorority branch, then copied me on an email she sent to all the girl’s parents. It said because of these sessions with Green Plate Special, the work they did, the respect they gave and the enthusiasm that the youth showed, every one of your girls wants to start packing lunch. It’s not cool at school but they wanted to make it cool again. So, they were asking for water bottles and they were asking to be able to buy bulk snacks that they could take to school.

Victoria was blown away by that change and its impact. The next school year she emailed me to say one of the girls from the program who was on the edge of being obese was now looking great. She wasn’t on a diet but after the Green Plate Special program she and her Mom decided to eat differently. She was one of the girls who had said, I had never tasted a carrot before. I always thought they would taste like dirt. And when I tried my first carrot from the garden it was good, it was sweet.

Photo: Madeline Crowley

 Kids are competing for the vegetable soups we make, there are tons of vegetables and greens in those soups. Yet, there’s a palatable fear of that first spoonful of vegetable soup or the fear of putting that sugar-snap pea in their mouth. Since, it’s middle school there’s drama that comes with it, so they’ll put up such a stink abut how they can’t eat it, it’s really hard for them to try it. Then, they’ll try it. They come back quietly and ask if they can have another. They just have to try it first.

One thing that’s exciting is the opportunity to learn basic cooking especially basic knife skills because most of these kids don’t cook with their families. They’re not old enough to be making choices in their families.

We’ve had kids who’ve continued with us, one of our market students helps sell produce on Fridays. His little brother who is in third grade comes with him to the garden. At first, he wouldn’t eat the greens but he became fascinated with vinaigrette, and emulsions because we do that too as part of the science part of cooking. With an emulsion, you can use it at a dip. So, he wanted to make a vinaigrette at home and got total resistance. I gave him everything he needed to take home but there was real resistance at home, ‘You don’t like salad. We don’t eat that.’ He’s been coming on Fridays for two years now and little by little, his favorite thing has become bowls of salad. He has a loving family. Now, his little brother has his own jar of vinegar and oil because he wants to make a vinaigrette like his older brother did. So, he brought garlic home. His dad asked him what are you going to do with that? He said, I’m going to put it on salad. His Dad said, You don’t like salad. So, the next week the little brother comes back and says, I don’t like salad, I don’t like lettuce. So, it’s like, yes, you do. You liked it two weeks ago, so here, try it again. So, it’s back and forth. First, introducing them to something and seeing if they like it. 

Photo: Madeline Crowley
 We got so many letters at the end of the 7th grade about the program, 24 thank you letters. They said, things like:
I learned we could all be a family and sit down together to eat and it was like Thanksgiving but more fun.
I learned the person on my team at the garden was very different that I thought, so I learned to get along with people I didn’t know or like before.
I learned I can make salad without so much beef and chicken in it, and without Green Plate Special,
I wouldn’t have known that.
I liked the taste test where I got to try all these new things. That was fun.

They learned how to use a knife properly because we practice that every week. Right now, we’re set up in a church but going forward, it’ll be more home-focused. We’ll have equipment like a refrigerator, dishwasher, electric burners and cutting boards – with a place to eat. We want them to navigate these skills at home with basic cooking and simple ingredients.

They want to make desserts. So, when we do, it’s zucchini bread. They were just falling all over, ‘This is disgusting - that’s going to be awful.’ They wouldn’t try it at first but after they took the whole thing home. A lot of kid will take things we make in class home to their families because we have a lot of leftovers in boxes. There’s one young man in our program who always takes food home, I don’t think it has to do with pride about what he did in class, I think it has to do with taking food home to his family. So we always make that possible. In the garden too, we just planted so the students from this session won’t be there when it comes up. They know, though, that they are welcome into this garden to come and harvest the collards and bring that home to your family.  

 We have some of the kids want seeds so they could bring them to a garden at home. One minute it’s all about attitude, they’re not being respectful and the next minute, it’s like, ‘Wow! Those are my seeds! They just came up.’ And they’re running into the garden to see the little teeny sprouts.
It’s just one spark but maybe that one spark will transfer to a brother or a sister. When we can create curriculum that includes science and math and nutrition and then they can incorporate that so their teacher doesn’t have to do the incorporating. We can do as it as an outside organization supporting that in schools but not get wrapped up in the schools themselves. Then we can get access to the schools, and as the funding is coming in now, and people are seeing that after three years we’re doing this well. We’re getting small grants and funding for the garden. There are some great people behind that funding who know a lot of other generous funders, so it gives us the power to start making things happen for our community.

If you could communicate life advice to teens what would it be?

Be open-minded and open to new things; don’t be afraid to try something no one around you has tried when you’re given the opportunity. Being open will help you expand your world. It will  expand your opportunities. As we know, people of color have more barriers to deal with and fewer opportunities. Yet, if you can be more open-minded not only with people but with experiences, you’ll be introduced to new things. The more new things you’re introduced to can create more opportunities which can open doors.

What is even more important than being open is not to let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do; to believe that you will have opportunities. We know why people feel they don’t, lots of people feel that way, but you do have choices for yourself. Branch out as much as you can and then you’ll have more opportunities.

There’s so many reasons to feel that you have less opportunities but in reality, absolutely in reality, when you’re given an opportunity, take it.

(Laura Dewell was found for this project by walking by her garden)

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2013   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 

This project was supported in part by
4Culture's Heritage Projects program 


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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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