It’s 4:00 p.m. on a Monday in the Positive Community Kitchen, and volunteers are chopping, dicing, pureeing, and mixing together fresh ingredients to be served to families impacted by a life-threatening disease. Volunteers just entering the kitchen grab an apron, wash up, and turn to Cody Fuqua, head chef, for further instruction. Sometimes interrupted by the occasional question, “How much garlic is in three tablespoons?” The overall atmosphere of the kitchen is proficient, like a well-oiled machine. These volunteers appear to have years of previous experience working in a kitchen, and some do, but what may come as a surprise is that these volunteers are local teens.
Approximately 20 teens cook and prepare meals alongside Chef Fuqua every week to feed roughly 35 to 36 entire households, an estimated one to four people per household included. Bliss Gutierrez, a senior teen volunteer from South Eugene High School, has been volunteering in PCK’s kitchen since her English class was visited by current volunteers. She was immediately interested and thought it sounded like, “A cool experience to learn to cook with friends.” Gutierrez is just one of many teen volunteers who spend their time outside of class making a difference in PCK’s kitchen.
The Positive Community Kitchen is stopping the food insecurity cycle impacting households struggling with a debilitating disease who otherwise don’t have the means to gather, cook, and prepare healthy meals with the proper nutrients to heal them. By adult and teen volunteers working alongside each other, maintaining and growing the freshest ingredients in PCK’s organic garden—chopping, preparing, and cooking delicious healthy meals—these families affected by a chronic disease can feel secure, knowing their loved ones are receiving the nutrients they need to combat their illness and gain strength.
Since the Positive Community Kitchen’s inception in October 2013, the program’s mission has been, “To promote wellness in the community through food,” said President of Positive Community Kitchen Shanna Hutton. Hutton has been involved since the very beginning, “My dedication to the growth of this organization is motivated by the passion I feel for PCK’s mission and its important role in the Eugene-Springfield area,” Hutton said.
The rate of hunger decreased from 6.6 percent to 6.2 percent according to Mark Edwards from Oregon State University in his written work, Food Insecurity in Oregon and the U.S.: Uneven Recovery in the Midst of Overall Improvement, 2014 to 2016. Oregon is one of the highest-rated food insecure areas in the entire country. The data indicated that rural counties in Oregon, such as places like Eugene, are five percent more likely to undergo food insecurity compared to the rest of the country, making rural county citizens 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent more likely to be food insecure than urban Oregon citizens.
An integral piece of PCK’s mission includes offering education to teens about healthy living and nutrition, along with providing volunteer opportunities for hands-on learning that also empowers teens by giving back to the community. “We are building a community of caring individuals dedicated to growing a healthier, happier world,” said Hutton.
Each week Chef Fuqua plans out a menu and sets up stations with all the needed supplies and ingredients so when it comes time after school, the teen volunteers can jump right into the cooking process. Chef Fuqua is responsible for the coordination in his kitchen that gets the donated or PCK-grown ingredients from the ground to the cutting board and to the benefitting families’ dining room table. The meals are based on the guidelines provided by the American Institute of Cancer Research’s healthy plate format which emphasizes a meal made of mostly plant-based whole foods.
The Lane County Community Health Needs Assessment, 2015 to 2016, outlined two separate reports on the health of adults and teens in Lane County. One in four adults in Lane County consumed five or more fruit and vegetable servings a day in 2013, and the rate has remained steady over time, according to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Much like the adults, one in five 11th graders, high school juniors, consume five or more fruit and vegetable servings in a day, which is below the average for 11th-grade students in Oregon, according to Oregon Healthy Teens Survey.
Chef Fuqua acknowledged the growing epidemic of misinformation surrounding proper nutrition; however, the small kitchen space hinders the potential growth of PCK. Fuqua is excitedly awaiting the move of PCK into a larger space, so that in the future, PCK can teach free open enrollment classes on nutrition and food preparation techniques. With roughly 80 total volunteers that come at least once a month, the current space is too small to introduce the different ideas that Fuqua wishes to carry out. With an emphasis on, “Educating teens and adults on making things that may taste like cardboard actually taste delicious,” Fuqua said.
This isn’t the first time that Chef Fuqua has worked with teens in a kitchen setting. When he moved to Oregon from Texas, his first occupation was at the County Juvenile Justice Center, where he worked in the kitchen vocational program, teaching teens cooking skills that would help them find jobs after serving their probation period. It was working in this kitchen where he would meet the former head chef of PCK and Chef Fuqua was asked to volunteer in PCK’s kitchen. Nine months of volunteering eventually led to his permanent spot on the payroll and the job that he carries out to this day.
Chef Fuqua’s involvement with PCK piqued the interest of his wife, Meg Fuqua, and she was brought aboard by the PCK team through the new garden program that started in March 2017.
Because of the success of the program, the Northwest Youth Corps donated part of their land, roughly 3,000 square feet, to PCK. The garden grows seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables that are then sent to the kitchen to be cooked and prepared. Meg, the garden coordinator, oversees all garden operations, deciding what will be grown and where and leads the garden volunteers.
Before Meg moved to Oregon she was living in Texas with her husband, working as a web developer, and struggling with the thought of “spending my entire life behind a computer.” Meg started a plant-based diet and felt a dramatic difference in her health which led to her turning point, she didn’t want to see people suffering. She wanted to support the people battling with their health by providing them with fresh produce and a nutrient-rich diet that would undoubtedly help their body’s healing process.
However, Meg estimated that only roughly five percent of the food used in meal preparation is from the PCK garden, and the rest is through donations or purchased by PCK. Local markets, farms, and home-growers routinely donate food to PCK; however, PCK still purchases more food than is donated. Even with the rise of PCK’s garden, the cost of food still remains at the top of PCK’s budget.
Meg remains hopeful that in the future, with more land and manpower, 100 percent of the food will be from the garden. “PCK struggles with the same issues many non-profits do in regards to funding and people-power. We are a small budget organization, and we do a lot with a little,” said Hutton.
“In a perfect world I’d love to do it five days a week,” said Fuqua. Referring to the number of meals delivered to the clientele each week. The meals are packaged every Tuesday and portioned to feed the entire family up to two meals that week. For a two-person family that delivery would include a salad, two soups, two entrees, and a dessert. The meals are all gluten-free and flexible enough to be modified per the clientele’s request.
Each family is assigned a liaison, available for them to make special requests if necessary, discuss delivery details and after 12 weeks, discuss whether or not the family wishes to stay on the meal program. If yes, then the liaison asks for a ten-dollar donation per serving per week for all six dishes. The families are never asked for their income status and are never turned away because of it, but if a family is struggling to pay the ten-dollar donation, then a member of the community will likely make the donation to ensure the family will stay on the plan for another 12 weeks. Currently, there are 36 active families, with a rolling list of 40 families, some of which bow out during some weeks because of chemotherapy treatments or doctor’s appointments that are out of town. Most households leave the program after their 12 weeks end or earlier, depending on whether their treatment has ended; however, PCK offers resources on other food support services within the community for the household that still needs help with food and nutrition intake.
The Positive Community Kitchen was based on a project in California, known as the Ceres’ Project. Two years ago, Chef Fuqua traveled to Sonoma, California to learn from the experts and received extensive knowledge on organization and food preparation that ultimately made his kitchen run significantly more smoother and efficient. The Ceres project was brought to Eugene after a dark shadow of devastation was cast over South Eugene High School in 2011, when two students passed away on the Oregon Coast due to a sneaker wave. It was this moment that drove two mothers to inject the empty void left in the community with some positivity, and Positive Community Kitchen was born. The first students to be recruited as volunteers were from South Eugene High School, since then students from all the local high schools have volunteered their time in PCK’s kitchen and garden.
Joey Brundan, a senior from South Eugene High School, routinely volunteers in the garden and likes the exercise aspect, being outdoors, and the level of independence he feels when he sees a project that needs doing—he jumps right in and tackles the issue head-on.
The solid reputation of Ceres has allowed PCK to hit the ground running in Eugene, but Hutton knew that “Local programs need to evolve to fit the needs of their own community.” Stock The Shelves is a hosted fundraising event ranging from small to large parties, occupying homes, schools, churches, and more, and features an immersive live cooking demonstration of a dish from PCK’s own menu in return for guests’ donated organic pantry items. PCK is also implementing an annual spring Plant Pledge program that gives home gardeners free produce ‘starts’ under the agreement that a portion of the fully grown produce will be donated back to PCK’s kitchen.
The nutrient-rich, local, and organic meals are made purposefully to help the client through their treatment and healing process, “If our clients feel supported and loved, we feel we have succeeded,” said Hutton.
Bliss Gutierrez is almost due to graduate soon from South Eugene High School and has since reflected on her experience volunteering at PCK, the most memorable feeling that she is left with is “the feeling of being so happy to help other people.”