Local nonprofit educates children in grades 4 through 8 about food, food justice, and cooking
by Carolyn Bick
As Em Draayer and two students wandered about Green Plate Special’s garden, late evening sunlight trailed its warm fingertips across the tops of tall, green broad bean plants. While the trio munched on fresh sorrel, Galen Van Horen showed Blanca Escoto a small chicken coop, whose feathered occupants ran up to the fence, expecting food.
Both Draayer and Van Horen are both staff members at Green Plate Special, and were there that evening for the second class in a cooking series for families.
“As you can see, we’re cooking curry tonight,” Green Plate Special Education Director Maia Bernstein said, the announcement garnering smiles and small whoops from the gathered families. “Who can point out India on a map?”
Green Plate Special is a nonprofit founded in 2011 by Laura Dewell meant to educate children in grades 4 through 8 about food, food justice, and cooking. The organization’s permanent home just off Rainier Avenue in south Seattle has a spacious, organized kitchen, as well as a garden and a small hothouse, which currently houses a variety of fragile, baby hot peppers that will be transplanted, once they are bigger.
After decades in the professional cooking world, Dewell felt called by her passion for working with children and her dedication to social justice to use her knowledge and skills to help her community. Green Plate Special classes and camp are meant for families and children who may not have access to fresh ingredients, or who may not know how to cook healthy, filling meals.
Though the organization has been working with children since its inception, this April, it started hosting its first-ever cooking class series for families, in partnership with the south Seattle-based Odessa Brown Family Clinic. The classes can currently hold up to 20 people.
For the past decade, the clinic has held cooking classes of its own for the typically underprivileged families it serves, in order to help prevent youth obesity and associated diseases, goals that resonated with Dewell. It also helps to bring together families, which touched on Dewell’s own childhood experiences.
“If they are able to share that bond in the kitchen, and then sit down and eat that meal, that’s really going to expand everybody’s understanding … and joy of food,” Dewell said in an interview, before the May 1 class. “If a child can help out in the kitchen, that’s a big empowerment for families that are already stretched, and if a parent trusts that the child can do that … then that is going to give that family more of an opportunity to have time in their day to actually think about cooking.”
Cupping small bowls of dried fruit and nuts, and sipping on water flavored with mint from Green Plate Special’s garden, children and their parents sat with staff members and volunteers leading the two-hour cooking class. In the first class, the group made Italian puttanesca and Indonesian peanut stew over rice noodles. For the second class, the group was making two different curries with flavors from India and East Africa. The class focuses on international foods, rather than foods from just one country.
“It’s different cultures coming together … and in the opening, we’re talking about where different foods are coming from,” Dewell said.
While Dewell said the group doesn’t “preach” about nutrition, attendee Angie Escoto, Blanca’s mother, said she decided to take the classes with her daughter, for the learning aspect. Escoto was recently diagnosed with diabetes – and, because she and her daughter “love to eat,” she wants to make the healthiest choices possible. To do that, she said, she needs to learn.
“We’ve been trying to be very conscious of what we eat, and how we shop,” Escoto said.