Farm-to-table cooking takes root in juvenile hall

EUGENE, Ore. - Most schools would be envious of the MLK Education Center's "farm to table" program in Eugene.

While rates of childhood obesity in Lane County stagnate, this alternative high school is taking progressive steps to ensure student lives are headed in a positive direction - and their food choices are healthy.

MLK Education Center serves students that have an active case with Lane County Youth Services.

Through collaboration, social workers, law enforcement agents, educators, and students make steps towards a healthier life and community.

"It's the tiny steps that change the world," said John Aarons of Lane County Youth Services.

One way the agency and MLK Education Center are changing the world is through their food program.

A community garden is on the premises, and students take responsibility of the food from planting to plating.

Fresh fruit waits in bowls throughout the facility, and fresh produce spruce up traditionally drab food.

Matthew Sterner is the principal of the school.

"We have kids that are in the kitchen making meals for the folks in detention, in our treatment programs, and for here at the school. They really know what does into this food and can speak to it, having a sense of satisfaction," Sterner said.

Students are learning lifelong skills, and feeling a sense of success that they were unable to experience in a traditional school setting.

"I think I'll use it later in life because now I know how to make things that I didn't know how to make," said student Eriana Atkinson.

Jose Alvarez, who is the director of the kitchen and vocational program, manages 15 to 20 students per week.

They learn professional food service skills through class, and catering assignments.

He said that he has seen many past students graduate to lead careers in the food industry.

But, he believes simply observing kids' horizons widening has been the most rewarding.

"They're real proud of the food they've prepared and they talk about it, and their friends listen. They try something new, and they're surprised. They're like, 'Wow! This is good!'"

While the garden should be in full swing in the next few months, volunteers from the community are always encouraged to get involved with Lane County Youth Services and its students.