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Originally published August 17, 2011 at 8:25 PM | Page modified August 18, 2011 at 2:20 PM

Food-centered STARTS program gives 8 teens a recipe for living well

A group calling itself STARTS — for Students Taking Agriculture 'Round The Streets — was started by a part-time pastor and owner of the Cortona Cafe to teach teens about healthful eating, urban agriculture, farming, cooking and business basics.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Every Thursday for the past seven weeks, eight teenagers have taken over the kitchen in the Central District's Immaculate Conception Church.

Some sauté veggies, chop leafy greens and roll out dough while others season chunks of chicken breast in what have been weeks of culinary learning and tinkering.

The group calls itself STARTS, for Students Taking Agriculture 'Round The Streets. It was started by Jason Davison, a part-time pastor and co-owner of the Cortona Cafe, about eight blocks away.

The goal is to teach the teens the ins and outs of urban agriculture, farming, healthful cooking practices and business basics.

"I'm not trying to just throw money at kids," Davison said of the paid internship program that started in June and ends next week. "They're here to work."

The program is funded primarily through the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative and Davison and his colleagues are working on ways to extend the funding to keep the program going through the fall.

Their aim is to train youngsters for success while changing the culture of the low-income neighborhoods where many of them live. For them, food choices may be limited to convenience stores that sell processed and sugar-laden snacks — and not apples, tomatoes or strawberries.

"If you change the way people think, then you can fight the obesity, diabetes and other diseases that affect them," he said, referring to chronic health problems that are common among low-income families and communities of color.

According to a recent study on the eating and spending habits of 1,000 Seattle residents, the relatively high cost of nutritious foods is one reason some people make poor food choices.

"These kids are not going to Trader Joe's or Whole Foods," said Davison of his interns, many of them from Yesler Terrace, where the median annual income is just above $10,000.

Back in the kitchen, the youngsters argued about ingredients. "I need seasoning salt!" yelled Jazmine Simmons, 17, realizing she also needed paprika if she was to finish. "Is there more chicken? They're hogging all the chicken."

The oral jousting didn't keep any of them from finishing the dish they've been perfecting for the past few weeks — pizza.

"We're all family; we argue all the time," said Andrea Brown, 15, who will be a sophomore at Garfield High School. She knew little about food preparation before joining STARTS but today is making pesto.

Part of the teens' job is to create a dish that will be sold at the Cortona Cafe. They work in pairs to create four different pizzas, all healthful and some gluten-free.

There is a breakfast pizza, a chicken-pesto pizza, a broccoli pizza and chicken-herb pizza. Teams are stationing themselves in front of the Cortona Cafe or the Madison Market less than a mile away to taste-test their dishes, with the most popular one to be added to Cortona's menu.

"The breakfast pizza is really good," said Simmons, taking tongs and a plate of chicken slices to the grill outside.

Davison can't help but smile when he talks about the group, whose ages range from 14 to 18.

Actually, he smiles at just about everything, except when he hears someone refer to the STARTS youngsters as "at risk."

"In our culture we just throw that term around," he said. "These are kids that are super intelligent" but may have been exposed to violence, poverty or unstable homes, he said. "They just need someone to believe in them."

Four days a week, STARTS and its partners — including urban farms such as Ground Up Yesler and Green Plate Special in addition to chefs and nutritionists — mentor the group.

In addition to Thursdays in the kitchen, Mondays are dedicated to composting. On Tuesdays, the teens head to a farm to pick produce and learn such things as how to set up sprinkler systems. And Wednesdays, they sell locally grown produce outside the Cortona Cafe, giving the proceeds back to the farmers — minus a small percentage for their work.

"This is rainbow chard," said Jeremiah Nguyen, 18, pointing to bunches of yellow-, orange- and purple-stalked leaves. "It's only $2 and you can chop it and put it in a salad. It's really good."

He came to the program through a recommendation from a former employer.

"Sometimes it's tough ... stressful," he said, referring to his life outside of STARTS. More than once he's called Davison for advice. "We're just a big ol' group, all working to make something good," said Nguyen.

Back at the kitchen, the teens put finishing touches on their dishes. The oven was prepped and the dough for 12 personal-size pizzas was waiting.

During their kitchen time this week, the group planned to pore over public comments from the taste tests to decide which two pizzas make the cut. One will be vegan and gluten-free, and the other "omnivore friendly."

"They're all good," said Simmons. "But I'm still going to win."

Roberto Daza: 206-464-3195 or rdaza@seattletimes.com

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