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Food for thought

Riverdale students take final exam making Thanksgiving dinner for 60 homeless teens
by: barb randall Jennie Hubbard and Nathan Gruenberg work together to get sauteed green beans ready to transport.

Students in Riverdale High School's Food for Thought class had added pressure to do well on their final exam last week. Sixty homeless teens at New Avenues for Youth, a shelter for homeless teens in Portland, were counting on them to deliver a fine-tasting Thanksgiving dinner.

The Food for Thought class, taught by Santha Cassell, is a popular offering at the school.

'My curriculum is defined by several things,' Cassell said. 'One is the season: Teaching the class in the fall means we are focused on fall foods, whereas in the spring we look at new spring foods. We also look at current thinking in food culture: the locavore movement, agribusiness, farming in general, nutrition, health, food and memory. Students read articles, do research, create a personal regional cookbook and have a debate about meat. They also have a weekly cooking task designed to build their basic cooking skills. They write about what went well, what they would do differently, what they learned in a semi-public forum.'

She teaches the class because she loves food, but also because she believes many of the nation's health concerns could be remedied if home cooking was demystified.

'Cooking at home is cheaper, healthier, more emotionally satisfying and kinder to the planet,' she said. 'If my students move on after the class and are more likely to cook for friends and family, I will have done a very good thing for my students and the people who are connected to them. I also teach this class because students love it. Although I am not sure how I will continue to teach it, considering our lack of equipment and kitchen time, I don't know if the kids will let me not teach it.'

For the final exam, Cassell wanted the students to undertake a high-stakes situation in which students problem-solved, cooked and served others. On the first day of class she asked students whom they might select to work with and serve on the project. Senior Gordon Nickerson had worked with New Avenues for Youth and suggested they approach that agency. He contacted the organization, the class toured the facility, and it was agreed the students would partner with the agency.

The class created a menu that included roasted turkey, white bean veggie patties, bread stuffing with sage, sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, roasted Brussels sprouts and carrots, sautéed green beans with caramelized shallots, mashed potatoes, gravy from the pan drippings, rolls, and apple crumble pies and pumpkin pies with whipped cream.

A master list of chores was prepared outlining every detail needing to be completed to make the delivery deadline of 4:30 p.m. Nov. 17. Using the school kitchen, all foods were prepared from scratch, with the exception of the piecrusts. The students had to determine quantities needed for making multiple batches, coordinate oven time, determine when rolls should be prepared, how much time was needed to rise before shaping and then baking. They also had to calculate when to put the turkeys in the oven to ensure they were perfectly roasted by the deadline.

They were given a tip sheet on how to get an A on the final, which included: 'clean as you go. Work so that at 3:45 p.m. on Thursday the kitchen is spotless, the food is in the vehicle and stowed safely, hot and delicious, and you are ready for a class meeting. Attendance will be taken and food will be evaluated. Help people if you are not busy.'

'Making this Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings is fun,' said Hannah 'Grace' Garrett. 'It's fun to turn ingredients into food.' She said she had learned a great deal about where foods come from and why that matters.

'I've learned that it's OK to spend more than an hour making dinner,' said Julia Bates. She and many other students were looking forward to helping prepare their family's Thanksgiving meals.

Senior Bronte Williams was particularly proud of the rolls and pies the class had made. She had made pies before, but never enough to feed 60 people.

And how did New Avenues for Youth grade Riverdale's effort on the final? According to an email Cassell shared, New Avenues gave the class an A+.

Jessica Elkan, director of development at New Avenues for Youth, wrote in the email that youths were 'shocked' when they walked in to find 'all of the traditional Thanksgiving delights.'

'The turkey, gravy and all of the side dishes (especially the pie) created a sense of home and comfort,' she wrote. 'Many of them expressed how 'it felt like the Thanksgiving they always imagined but had never experienced.'

'Thank you for making the youth of New Avenues an extension of the Riverdale High School community this holiday season.'