Before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, Jacobsen Valentine was busy teaching anyone and everyone how to cook and eat healthy at his nonprofit cooking school, Feed the Mass. Once the city shut down, however, Valentine pivoted to cooking for others.
Since May 11, in conjunction with Ecotrust and The Redd -- Ecotrust’s equitable, regional food hub -- Valentine has been tirelessly working to provide free meals to low-income families and people in need with Fed, his new project. In the five weeks since it started, he and a team of volunteers have delivered more than 1,500 meals across the city.
“If we can’t teach, we can teach people to take care of each other,” Valentine said. “Let’s just feed people.”
Valentine started in the restaurant industry when he was 20, often working multiple jobs in order to pay the bills. He went to culinary school, loved it and excelled, but securing higher-paying gigs proved harder than his teachers had ever alluded to.
“What they don’t tell you in culinary school is it takes a long time to get a good job in the restaurant industry, and especially for a person of color, it’s harder,” Valentine said. “If they did, they wouldn’t have POCs there.”
The accompanying stress of working multiple kitchen jobs and the lack of access to healthy food was what eventually jump-started Feed the Mass.
“I wasn’t that healthy [then], I gained a lot of weight,” Valentine said. “At my heaviest, I was 450. I decided I wanted to eat and cook healthier and one of my biggest crutches was I worked in the service industry, and there you eat whatever is available...The majority of stuff in restaurants is french fries and carbs and fatty things.”
Eventually, Valentine landed a steady job that allowed him to dedicate time to creating Feed the Mass.
Now the city’s only nonprofit cooking school, Feed the Mass offers affordable and inclusive cooking classes to the community. It started with Valentine preaching the gospel of nutrition and healthy eating as a volunteer youth pastor. When the church “didn’t have the money, funds or interest to have that education,” Valentine said, he took on the cause himself.
He started sharing his knowledge, honed from those years in restaurant kitchens, in store fronts to young adults. Soon after, parents and adults wanted to learn, too. Eventually, Fred Meyer’s Northwest Portland location asked Valentine to teach classes from their kitchen. Feed the Mass outgrew that space and the next, eventually landing at North Portland’s Faubion School, a K-8 charter school that has made healthy eating a central tenet of its education through its partnership with Concordia University.
“How do we make sure the people we teach get the skills they need, can do it at home and are healthy?” Valentine said of his educational mission. “We have really focused on the healthy and understanding the basics of cooking. Most of the kids are black, Hispanic, Asian. This is exactly what I want to do. I want to help this community. I want kids who look like me back in the day to get the education about what they put in their bodies.”
With schools still closed due to Covid-19, Valentine has traded his educational approach for a more practical one: cooking directly for the community again.
Since Fed’s May 11 launch, Valentine and a rotating cast of volunteers have made everything from chana masala and tomato soup and grilled cheese to vegetarian yakisoba and sandwiches. On Monday, Le Pigeon chef and owner Gabe Rucker joined the crew to help make a chicken stew for 400.
Much of the ingredients, Valentine said, have come from vendors or farms that would have otherwise thrown it away. Airbnb, who had to close its downtown kitchen, recently donated $10,000 worth of food. Hood River’s Kiyokawa Family Orchards sent over 11 cases of Honeycrisp apples. “We figure there’s an easier way to take that food and turn it into meals on a regular basis so people can continually have nourishment,” he said.
Already he’s bumped food deliveries up from twice to three times a week and has been reaching out to other food service workers, nonprofits, and vendors to find volunteers or secure donations.
Because Fed is still relatively new, Valentine is still working on reaching the communities that he believes need it most: his own. He’s reached out to black Portland, he said, but access is still an issue with its Southeast Portland kitchen because the area is not that diverse. He has radio segments airing on 102.9 to help get the word out about what Fed and Feed the Mass are doing.
“We’re still in the beginning phase of getting started, but our goal is to of course reach those in need, but the people most in need right now are in the BIPOC community,” Valentine said. “They’re one, more susceptible to coronavirus and two, have limited access to good nutrition...It’s important that we get our word out there because the people we’re trying to serve don’t know about us.”
— Samantha Bakall
Samantha Bakall is a Portland-based, Chinese American writer whose work has appeared in The Oregonian, where she covered food for four years; Eater; The San Francisco Chronicle, Travel Oregon and more. Find her work at samanthabakall.com and on Instagram.