A True Recipe for Success

Cindy Brown empowers youth via cooking classes

By Drew Myron

In a school kitchen, hot oil sizzles, hamburger scorches, smoke billows, a timer rings and a teen calls out, “My breadcrumbs are burning!”

Cindy Brown, the only adult in a room of busy teens, is calm in the chaos.

“This is pure joy,” says Cindy, an educator for Oregon State University’s Extension Service in Sherman County. “It’s kind of organized chaos. I want them to have fun with it and have fun with food.”

Cindy Brown leads cooking classes with a focus on nutrition, health, planning and sharing at Sherman County School. Here she works in the kitchen with novice cook Ashlynn Flatt.

This afterschool program for junior and senior high school students—called #adulting—is not a routine cooking class but a vehicle for personal growth. Undaunted by burning food, sharp knives and teen chatter, Cindy’s fearless approach sets a tone for the students who appear fearless as well.

“This is positive youth development,” Cindy explains. “They’re learning to cook, yes, but they are also learning to think, to cooperate, to try new things.”

Through cooking, young people learn about nutrition, health, planning and sharing.

“It’s a life skill,” Cindy says. “It’s something you’re going to do three times a day for the rest of your life.”

Sherman County School in Moro serves students in kindergarten through high school but no longer offers home economics classes. Thanks to a partnership with Sherman County Extension, Cindy brings energy and enthusiasm to a collection of cooking and nutrition programs for all ages.

“The kids love Cindy,” says Talese Slay, who teaches third grade.

Along with #adulting for junior and senior high students, Cindy takes part in SKORE—Sherman Kids on the Road to Excellence—by sharing with grade-school students basic cooking techniques, recipes, taste testing and nutrition. She also presents educational courses for SNAP—the federal nutrition assistance program—and leads numerous 4-H Club programs, including outdoor cooking classes, food preservation, day camps and excursions.

A new program at Sherman County School gives students the chance to taste-test new “Food Hero” recipes created in the school cafeteria. The program—a partnership of the Oregon Department of Education, Oregon State University and Sherman County Extension—aims to introduce and increase healthy eating using a variety of fruits and vegetables.

several students displaying and discussing the meals they prepared in their afterschool cooking class
From left, Shelby Havins, Pyeper Walker, Ashlynn Flatt, Aeden Phelps and Kiyonae Riggs display and discuss the meals they prepared in their afterschool cooking class.

Cindy didn’t set out to teach cooking. In fact, she has no formal culinary training, never took a home economics class, and her own home cooking is limited to plants and whole foods as part of a diet emphasizing fruits, vegetables and limited meats. She adopted the eating plan four years ago after watching “Forks Over Knives,” a documentary exploring the idea of food as medicine.

“I was never even much of a vegetable eater until a few years ago,” Cindy says.

“My family’s meals had a short list of vegetables: peas, corn, tomatoes and broccoli, and iceberg lettuce on the side,” says Cindy, 56.

She has eliminated wheat, eggs, dairy and meat from her diet.

“With a whole food plant-based diet, I have more energy and focus than ever, and weigh 4 pounds less than I did in high school,” she says. “I like to eat and I like to be super healthy.”

Born and raised in Sherman County to a family of wheat farmers, Cindy attended Washington State University and earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics. For a short time, she worked at an engineering firm in Portland before she and her husband, Charley, opened Hughes Feed & Grain in The Dalles—a business they ran for almost 18 years.

Kiyonae works on her cooking skills.

Cindy then worked as the coordinator for the Tri-County Hazardous Waste and Recycling Program. In 2011, she joined Sherman County Extension as an educator. She is on the board of directors at Gorge Grown Food Network, is a master gardener and an avid hiker.

Superintendent of Sherman County School Wes Owens says the recipe for success is Cindy’s energy.

“She’s a worker,” he says. “Cindy really interacts well with kids. The school is the hub of our community, and these programs are wonderful for our students.”

For Cindy, the ultimate success is seeing a student experience a sense of achievement.

“When kids have life skills, it gives them confidence and resilience,” she says.

“When they get older they can take care of themselves.”

Cindy beams at Ashlynn Flatt, 13, as she presents her first meal: a juicy hamburger, cooked to medium, and topped with lettuce, tomato and pepperoni.

“This is the first time I’ve cooked anything,” Ashlynn says with a smile.