Program serves up a feast of healthful eating

By Maureen O’Hagan

Seattle Times staff reporter

It sounds like a Food Network reality show: a dinner party where participants must devise their own recipes, winging it with whatever ingredients are on hand, without any idea how many guests will show up. Could be 20, could be 60.

Oh yeah, and the cooks are between the ages of 12 and 22 — and for many, their only cooking experience is zapping a frozen dinner.

Talk about a gamble.

And yet, every Wednesday, the youths at FEEST manage to pull it off.

“It’s always amazing how we always have enough food, and it comes out pretty good,” said Cristina Orbe, program manager at FEEST, which stands for Food Education Empowerment and Sustainability Team.

The free drop-in program — with a budget of about $50,000, courtesy of the King County Food and Fitness Initiative — teaches young people about cooking and healthful eating. All the meals are centered on vegetables, with a little bit of meat thrown in occasionally.

“A lot of youth eat a ton of starch and a ton of meat,” Orbe said. “We want to make vegetables delicious.”

Some of the vegetables come from the garden at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in Seattle’s Delridge area, which houses the program.

On a recent day, there were carrots and kale, chard and beets, potatoes and mushrooms and more, all laid out on the table when youths began arriving at 3:30 p.m. Newbies were warmly welcomed — and put right to work chopping. Creativity was encouraged.

“I’m just going to make it up,” said Fatuma Ali, a 15-year-old West Seattle High School student, as she sliced carrots for roasted potatoes. “Maybe some ginger, black pepper, olive oil … ”

A trained adult gently guides the youths with the wisdom gained from years of cooking — how to use a knife safely, what tastes good with what, how in the world to make your own salad dressing. Then he stands back.

“Last week, he told me it was two parts oil, one part vinegar,” said Jacob Aparicio, 15, a Highline student. “I put in tomato juice to give it zing. Now I’m looking for someone who actually likes salad dressing to taste it.” With diabetes in his family, he wants to learn some healthful eating habits.

Lena Guevara, 16, heard about the program last year, when Orbe came to her Burien school. The first time she came, she thought, “I’ve never seen so many green things in my entire life.” At home, meat — things like Hamburger Helper — is often at the center of the plate.

“They really challenged me,” she said.

The first time she showed up, she was put in charge of making soup from scratch. “There was nothing in there that wasn’t from the garden,” she said. “I was really proud of myself.”

She’s taken what she’s learned home to her family.

Recently at FEEST, she set the table, artistically scattering fresh-picked flowers, as Seattle student Henry Luke, 17, thought about what he’s learned. Eating isn’t just about putting food in your mouth, he said. It’s about community, sharing, nourishment. And FEEST gives young people room to experiment and grow.

“Before, the idea of putting together a meal was so terrifying to me,” he said. “In my mind, I didn’t think it was possible. Before, I would just look at the refrigerator and it would be just a pile of things. Now I see them as potential combinations of things that are really something I would like to eat.”

Sure, it takes time to cook. “But it tastes better,” Luke said. “Also, I feel good after I eat this meal.”

By 5:30, bowls of salad and eggs and fruit and potatoes lined the table, but no one touched them. First, a ritual: Everyone introduced themselves and said what they were thankful for.

Then, as about 30 people dug in, light streamed in from the high windows, onto Guevara’s flowers.

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or