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Food Chain Links: The New Cascade Culinary Institute and Central Oregon Food Policy Council 

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Entering the new Cascade Culinary Institute (CCI) building is like walking onto the set of a TV cooking show. As CCI instructor and chef Thor Erickson is preparing lamb in one of the brand new kitchens, close-up footage appears on a large flat screen TV above, creating a complete sensory experience for viewers as the smells waft through the theater-like classroom.

"We haven't really broken in the space yet, so, this is sort of a christening for us this evening," explained CCI Director and Executive chef Gene Fritz.

The $7-million building located on the Central Oregon Community College campus certainly feels new, if not somewhat futuristic. Classical music plays throughout the building, glass gleams and footsteps echo. The new space has afforded the institute an 86 percent increase in square footage. "The students have kind of been like kids in a candy store coming in here with all new equipment, brand new facilities; it's been pretty exciting," explained Chef Fritz.

On this night, however, the classic college auditorium seating isn't filled with students. CCI is giving a tour of its new facility, The Junger Center, and a student-run restaurant called Elevation, to members of the Central Oregon Food Policy Council, an eclectic group of community members, farmers, and members of the public health, hunger relief and policy sector working to, as they say on their website, "lead the effort to achieve a sustainable and just food system in Central Oregon."

While the local food movement has shifted from a trend to a mainstay, most are still unfamiliar with the broad field in which the Central Oregon Food Policy Council (FPC) is operating: food security. The group defines "food security" as "a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice." Now, that's a mouthful! So, what does it all mean?

The issue is critical and pertinent to our state. Last year, the USDA ranked Oregon as having the second-highest rate of food insecurity, meaning we have a significant number of residents unable to meet their basic food needs. The work of the FPC overlaps with other local food players like the Culinary Institute, which supports local agriculture by hosting farm-to-table dinners and purchasing food from local growers, and extends into the realm of addressing hunger, food insecurity, and nutrition to create a local food system that works for everyone.

The FPC is in the process of branding itself, just as CCI is doing, and carried out its first project at an event called Project Connect, which provides "a one-stop shop of health, social and humanitarian services for struggling Central Oregonians." Grant money allowed the group to purchase $1,000 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms to distribute at Project Connect along with information on using SNAP (food stamps) at area farmers' markets.

The FPC coordinated with Oregon State University nutrition program, which offered recipes and samples of food prepared with the products the FPC was giving out, like peach smoothies and kale and carrot salad. The event was so successful that the group ran out of fresh produce half way through the day. Organizers said that they could have used twice as much product.

The Cascade Culinary Institute tour and subsequent FPC meeting was a testament to the broad range of issues and players involved in the field of food security. "There's a lot of opportunities for connectivity as it related to food policy, farm-to-table," explained Fritz. FPC members discussed upcoming projects like an informal event to connect local growers with local chefs, creating resources for farms to navigate the complex labyrinth of land use policy, and establishing more community gardens at area parks.

For those interested in getting involved, the next FPC meeting will be held Nov. 7 in Bend at a location yet to be determined.


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