‘Cooking Up Life Experience in Southwest Alaskan Schools’ by ASDN Staff

When more than 20 students joined Lower Kuskokwim School District’s new after school food sciences club this fall, expectations were low. The students, at school sites in Goodnews Bay, Tuntutuliak, and Kipnuk [currently on hold while in “red” Covid-19 status], expected to do a little cooking and a lot of listening to lectures about nutrition and kitchen safety. Instead, what they got was “an exploratory adventure going through cuisine” and so much more, according to Gear Up grant coordinator Alex Bernard.

“Students learn about everything from chemistry and nutrition to time management and cultural traditions.”

Using funds from the Rural Alaska GEAR UP Partnership, a multi-community USED grant program that promotes college and career preparation through culturally-relevant STEM activities, Bernard created the food sciences program as an avenue to introduce students to science and technology “through backdoor ways,” such as cooking. In this intensive, year-long extracurricular club, students learn about everything from chemistry and nutrition to time management and cultural traditions, all while cooking up delicious meals for themselves and their communities. “They don’t even realize they’re learning, because they’re having so much fun,” says Bernard.

Map of schools sites in the Lower Kuskokwim School District in western Alaska.

Every other week, the students, in grades 8-11, meet twice after school to learn techniques, kitchen skills, and the science behind cooking. They talk about how yeast rises bread, why we knead dough, organic foods vs. non-organic, and where olive oil comes from (olives!), according to Rocky Mountain School principal Karin Halpin. Then, they work all day Saturday to create thematic meals which they serve to their families. This social gathering allows the students to show off their skills and connect their learning to family and community. “The pride on their parents’ faces resonates within them,” notes Bernard, and that boost in self-esteem reflects pride both in themselves and in their culture.

Students learn and practice professional kitchen skills as part of the program.

The communities, in turn, support the program by providing local foods for the meals. Each session, whether the students are studying German or Mexican cuisine, they incorporate the donations of moose meat and salmon and local berries, connecting new knowledge to local and family ways of cooking and eating. When discussing the local traditional foods, Bernard stresses that “this was the cuisine that nourished a population for 11,000 years in the harshest environment on the planet. There should be some pride in that.”

Recently, during Bread Week, the program invited local elders to demonstrate cooking fry bread, a traditional food that’s familiar and comforting to many LKSD students. These experiences have led to larger conversations among the students about the idea of “comfort foods” and how that concept reflects a person’s culture and upbringing. When students questioned whether traditional comfort foods were available in local hospitals, it led to a discussion of how governmental nutritional standards could be extended to indigenous foods, and what it takes to effect policy changes in these areas.

Stuffing and baking pinwheels during Bread Week.

Those kinds of broader conversations help students see career paths and opportunities they may not have previously imagined, according to Bernard. By journaling their recipes and reflections, and then discussing them together, the students discover a wide array of career pathways – chef, policy maker, politician, nutritionist, agriculturalist, and many more.

The finished products!

During the off-weeks between meetings, Bernard and the site-based teachers leading the programs meet to choose cuisines, determine which skills to highlight, and then source the tools and foods they need. With herbs and vegetables hard to come by in these areas, each site has installed a vertical grow tower, allowing the kids to plant, water, and fertilize herbs and microgreens they are using for the meals. The students, eager to expand their indoor farming to include potatoes, tomatoes, and other vegetables, spend some of their meeting time investigating successful school models of indoor agriculture across the country.

Cooking (and eating) brings students together and gives them skills for life.

Next on the agenda, Bernard plans to introduce kids to food-related media jobs – by having them create podcasts, learn food photography and technical writing, and start a You-Tube channel about their experiences with food. Collaborations with public media outlet KYUK Bethel and other community partners help make all this possible. Bernard also credits the Anchorage foundation, Dipping Spoons, a non-profit that promotes careers in the culinary arts for BIPOC students and adults, for much of the inspiration for the program. Through them, Bernard hopes to connect his students virtually with working chefs across the nation who can share their real-life experiences as kitchen professionals.

“You see these lights getting flipped on in their heads,” says Bernard, of the effect that all these activities and discussions have on students. “It’s an explosion but it all came from this one idea–let’s have fun cooking.”