Tomatoes from the PAA garden are ready to be chopped for the salad bar on the first day of school.
It was the first day of school at Portland Adventist Academy. Students lined up for lunch where they picked from vegan or cheese lasagna, each stuffed with spinach, carrots, zucchini, and onions. Roasted broccoli was piled on the side.
Greeting them at the end of the line was a big bowl of fresh fruit and a colorful salad bar. Salad greens harvested from PAA’s gardens were practically begging to be topped with snap peas, bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, as well as beans, seeds, hummus, and more.
Chef Stef and a team of students planted seeds last spring. This fall, they’re producing food for the salad bar.
Behind this meal is our amazing “Chef Stef”. Stephanie Torgerson, PAA’s Food Service Director and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is passionate about feeding students healthy food and sourcing from campus gardens and local producers.
Chef Stef has the experience that feeds her mission! She was an integral part of a team that successfully launched a Farm-to-Table model in a Colorado public school district. She came to PAA a year ago with the experience fresh in her mind.
Coupled with this knowledge is her passion for our Adventist health “roots”. “Healthy eating is part of our heritage as Adventists,” says Torgerson. “With urban farms cropping up all over our city, and vegan and vegetarian lifestyles trending, why shouldn’t we be leaders in this movement?”
Students like River love Chef Stef’s healthy lunches.
In the PAA cafeteria, nutritious and delicious lunches are made up of whole grains, plant based proteins, and lots and lots of vegetables and fruit as locally sourced as possible.
Students are encouraged to return to the salad bar for seconds. They are served vegan choices nearly every day, and instead of juice and dessert, students can enjoy fresh fruit and decaffeinated tea.
While many people might be skeptical of the food’s appeal, she answers back with personal experiences. “Teenagers are far more adventurous than we give them credit for,” she says. “And it’s a misconception that they only like junk food.”
“My favorite food Chef Stef makes is lasagna,” says Amber Smith, PAA sophomore. “I love it especially when she serves it with Brussel sprouts.”
“I’m definitely in favor of the healthy food!” says Junior, Ben Krueger-Blehm. “Chef Stef is very creative and good at making food that wouldn’t normally appear in a school lunch.”
Along with healthier lunches, Chef Stef is responsible for the thriving blueberry bushes, an herb garden, and six garden beds filled with food destined for the salad bar.
Students work in the garden to be helpful rather than for a grade, extra credit, or to fulfill service hours.
But produce isn’t the only thing growing at PAA. Teams of volunteers gather on campus for work parties to build garden beds, compost bins, and to prepare the soil. Community members have donated supplies for garden beds, natural fertilizer (yep, it came from a horse!), and compost bins. Furthermore, there is a growing-group of students who regularly volunteer to weed, water, and harvest.
To continue the progress, Chef Stef has invested in learning. She recently traveled to Loma Linda to participate in the EXSEED program with other Adventist educators. On her way home, she stopped at several Adventist schools who have established farming programs that bring revenue, provide student jobs, and help educate. She also spoke with a number of health care professionals.
“‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is not just a cute saying,” says Bradely Personiums, MD FACC and Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation at Three Rivers Medical Center in Southern Oregon and supporter of Chef Stef’s goals. “If we can make it ‘normal’ for kids to eat a high-fiber, plant-based diet rich in phytonutrients and antioxidants you will save more lives in preventing cardiovascular disease than I could ever dream of impacting as a full time cardiologist. The great thing is that SDA schools were eating ‘green’ 100 years before anyone thought it was cool. It’s time to take advantage of this issue in the marketplace of schools.”
“Healthy eating is part of our heritage as Adventists,” says Torgerson. “With urban farms cropping up all over our city, and vegan and vegetarian lifestyles trending, why shouldn’t we be leaders in this movement?”
Chef Stef did a lot of homework, including researching our Adventist heritage and taking inspiration from messages like this:
“Look at nature. There is room in her vast boundaries for schools to be located where grounds can be cleared, land cultivated, and where a proper education can be given. This work is essential for an all-round education, and one which is favorable to spiritual advancement. Nature’s voice is the voice of Jesus Christ teaching us innumerable lessons of perseverance. The mountains and hills are changing, the earth is waxing old like a garment, but the blessing of God, which spreads a table for His people in the wilderness, will never cease.” Manuscript Releases, Vol 8. P200.3 Ellen G. White
Those words are held in Chef Stef’s heart. “I could talk for hours about the importance of this message and my passion for it,” she says. “What a wonderful chance this gives us to witness to our community and to return to our roots.”
The PAA family has embraced Chef Stef and her continuous dreams for the school. “I’ve come to realize that Chef Stef isn’t merely providing healthy meals,” says PAA teacher, Mark Smith. “For her, this is a mission focused not just on its health benefits but on connecting others to a healing ministry; one of the very foundations of our church.”
Students like Zoe and staff like Mr. Smith are excited about the healthy lunch options from which they can choose. They have embraced Chef Stef and her mission as part of our Christ-centered and character-driven culture.