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McRoberts launches community kitchen
Culinary arts teacher Cameo McRoberts, right, stands with Bernice Metcalf, of Southeast Senior Services, and a donation of prepared and frozen vegetables on Wednesday at Ketchikan High School. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

Ketchikan High School culinary arts teacher Cameo McRoberts has started the Ketchikan Community Kitchen, with the aim to bring students, businesses and nonprofit organizations together to nourish the community.

Nonprofit organizations around town receive food discards from the grocery stores, McRoberts said, but sometimes the organizations don't have the resources to process it, so it would often be wasted.

“A lot of times they get cases and cases of tomatoes or bell peppers or things like that, but they don't have either the storage or staff skill set to take that stuff and break it down and turn it into stuff that they can use,” McRoberts said. “So, a lot of times they're inundated with large amounts of produce and stuff that they don't know what to do with, or physically don't have the hands to do it.”

McRoberts said she began discussing solutions with her sister Bernice Metcalf, who works for the Catholic Community Service's Saxman Senior Center.

She said she told Metcalf, “When you guys get donations, I can come get them and then we'll cut it up, or we'll turn tomatoes into tomato sauce,” with the aim to donate it back to the organization.

That project planted the seed in McRoberts' mind that she could create a community-wide program with the same approach, so she has been reaching out to churches, senior programs, Women in Safe Homes and the Park Avenue Temporary Home to work on building a framework for the Community Kitchen program.

McRoberts and her students have been processing the food that her program is given into usable products, such as tomato sauce, soup stocks, orange juice and mashed potatoes. The final products are then donated back to the nonprofit groups.

“I'm in the infancy of trying to figure out how to make it a community organization where we can come up with creative ways to donate food back into the community,” McRoberts said, whether it's processing excess donated food or finding ways for community members to donate to the program so food can be bought for the Community Kitchen projects.

As Kayhi's culinary teacher, McRoberts said that there is another bonus to building the Community Kitchen program.

“Students not only learn civic pride and understanding and giving back to the community, but they also have a chance to practice knife skills and to work in a way that is beneficial to them, too,” McRoberts said.

As McRoberts builds the new program, the main challenge she said she's working to overcome is conquering the logistics of coordinating the gathering of the food and channeling it into her program.

Another project she and her students already have been successfully implementing, McRoberts said, is the creation of soups that they donate to the Salvation Army's program. The ingredients for the soups are paid for by local business owner Russell Thomas, she added.

“I was excited to help out with that,” she said.

Another way she has helped to get food to local nonprofits has been to donate foods that never were heated or served, such as those left over from Kayhi sports team fundraisers.

“For me, it's really important, especially taking over this (culinary arts) program, to have a community outreach element for the students — and just because that's what I like to do,” McRoberts said.

Another potential source of donated food McRoberts said she is looking forward to processing with her students is seaweed from the OceansAlaska Marine Science Center test beds that will be ready in early spring. Another unique source of food will be a hydroponic garden unit that she is purchasing through a grant, and that she expects to arrive in the coming months.

Growing greens hydroponically will benefit Ketchikan students, she said, because the students are growing up in an area with scarce opportunities to learn about agriculture.

This is McRoberts' first year as a teacher.

“It's very hard,” she said, laughing. “I have utmost respect for all teachers.”

She is working through her undergraduate degree in education through the University of Alaska Southeast's online program, with the aim of earning a master's degree, she said.

McRoberts' culinary background is extensive.

After graduating from Kayhi, she said she got a job as a cook at Yes Bay Lodge, then as a cook on a cruise ship. Following that, she went to a culinary school in Portland, Oregon, which led to a job as a sous chef in Chicago at a five-star Mexican restaurant owned by renowned chef Rick Bayless. While in college, she also lived in Mexico for a time.

McRoberts said she worked in grocery stores as well, and that's where she first became acutely aware of produce getting tossed out just because of cosmetic imperfections.

After her son was born, McRoberts said, she decided it was time to come home to Ketchikan.

“For me, this is kind of like the ultimate of getting to come back to Ketchikan to do something that I've had the chance to go all over the world to do,” McRoberts said.

McRoberts said that when she stepped into the Kayhi culinary arts teaching position this fall, she was given quite a bit of latitude to create a fresh program. She said she is focusing on introducing her students on new foods, like unusual cheeses that she brings to class.  She also is teaching them how to find opportunities to eat more fresh produce and avoid processed foods.

McRoberts said she often will show videos to her students, to expose them to the nearly infinite food sources and ideas for preparing foods.

Her students have prepared many dishes in McRoberts' class, including carnitas for 500 people, pasta and various sauces from scratch, and stacks of filled crepes. On this past Monday, the kitchen was emanating sugar-and-spice scents from gingerbread houses the students had created for a contest that McRoberts had set up.

But, it's not just about the delicious meals for the students, McRoberts said.

“When we make cookies, it's like talking about the structure of sugar and butter together, and why that works, and talking about baking powder. I get really into the nerdy science part of cooking. I try to make sure it's not just like fun-time-snack-time,” she said.

She also tries to emphasize the bonding value of cooking, by giving students cooking assignments to do at home, with the stipulation that they cook with the help of a family member.

She said that she starts her students with learning the fundamentals of cooking, such as measuring, knife skills and culinary industry basics. Every one of her students earns an Alaska food handlers card, and the State of Alaska waives the fee, which McRoberts said is the usual policy for cards earned by students in a school classroom.  

“There certainly is a career readiness element to it, too. It's a unique program,” McRoberts said.

She added that the new Community Kitchen project adds to their skills, because the large amounts of food they receive must be processed, which gives them experience that would be extremely useful as professional chefs.

“It's a separate entity from the actual class,” McRoberts emphasized, “but it's still part of something we in the class are creating.

She said the students, who have been gathering, sorting, prepping and processing donated food, are now seeing their products go out the door to the nonprofit organizations, and they are visibly proud of their work as they see it valued and shared.

McRoberts said that as the Ketchikan Community Kitchen grows, she is looking for volunteers and new ideas and ways to make the organization effective and efficient. Interested community members can contact her via email at cameo.mcroberts@k21schools.org.