Getting kids to eat healthy food can be difficult. But making sure kids living in state custody eat a well-rounded diet is a different task entirely.

Sarah Wickersham, treatment manager at the Douglas County Juvenile Department, has been trying to learn how to provide healthier, tastier food for kids at the Roseburg facility. That goal can be a challenge, she said, because she works with a highly-regulated food system, and kids don’t always want to eat healthily.

Last week, Wickersham attended a cooking demo at the Brix event center aimed at giving commercial and institutional chefs tools to incorporate more plant-based foods into their meals. Blue Zones Project organized the demo, which drew chefs from local schools, restaurants and assisted-living facilities. Wickersham said will try to use some of the products and methods shown at the demo.

She said the southern-fried tofu on Bisquick biscuits and garbanzo bean gravy made at the demo by Peggy Cheatham and Felicia Mellor, owners of Gathering Grounds Coffee House, might be too labor intensive for the juvenile facility.

But Wickersham was particularly interested in a bouillon concentrate shown at the demo by Lani Radier, a Portland-based chef and founder of NOBULL Specialty Foods. Radier demonstrated how her umami mushroom starter concentrate could be used in small amounts to make soups, sauces for meats, salad dressing and other nutritious meals.

“I’m always looking for easy ways to make scratch meals or healthy meals,” Wickersham said. “That bouillon she had was fantastic. I’m really hoping I can find a way to get that over here.”

A good diet is crucial to kids’ development and overall well-being at the facility, she said.

Forty out of 55 kids live at the facility’s two foster care residences.

“All of these kids have been traumatized,” she said about the foster kids. “This isn’t something they did, it was something that was done to them. They’re sad and hurt, and food is one of those comfort things that’s really the last thing you can address when you’re working with their mental health, because they just like what they like.”

The adolescents and young adults living in the facility’s foster care want comfort foods like potatoes, hamburgers and pizza, Wickersham said.

“It’s kind of a balancing act,” she said. “We put salads on the menu and then a cheeseburger once a week.”

Even if facility staff can convince kids to eat their vegetables, it’s still difficult to get nutritious ingredients and have enough time to cook them into something healthy, according to Wickersham.

“We’re not super healthy right now,” she said. But she has been making changes to improve that.

The facility recently started preparing nearly all of the kids’ meals in-house. Its old contract provided already prepared meals. Under the new contract, staff prepare most of the kids’ meals in the kitchen with ingredients delivered by the food distributor Sysco.

The prepared meals under the old contract were never filling, Wickersham said.

“Even if it’s not great food, full kids are happier,” she said. “They don’t act out as much when they’ve got enough in their bellies.”

Staff also try to involve students in planning and cooking meals so they can gain life skills, according to Wickersham. Kids often cook for themselves and other kids too.

“(A friend) didn’t have lunch yesterday so I made her potatoes out of the potatoes we bought for the Sunday dinner,” said Jane Thompson, a teenager in foster care at the Roseburg facility. Staff asked that The News-Review change the names of kids for confidentiality purposes.

“Sunday I made shepherd’s pie because it’s my favorite,” Thompson said.

She also bakes cookies whenever she can, she said.

Thompson had few complaints about food at the facility. She said she doesn’t like that the facility can only buy whole wheat pasta — since the facility receives federal money, it has to abide by U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary standards, which say whole wheat pasta is healthier than white flour pasta.

Wickersham is committed to diversifying the kids’ diets.

Rigid county, state and federal limits on how the facility spends its money will make it hard for Wickersham to buy the bouillon concentrates that Radier showed at the cooking demo if Radier doesn’t make the products available through Sysco.

Wickersham plans to contact her and see if that’s possible, she said.

Sam Gross, the owner of Loggers Pizza in Roseburg who also attended the demo, said since no local stores carry the concentrates, he would be interested in ordering them and distributing them to local institutions who want them.

“That’s a bigger conversation that we haven’t had yet because it requires some contracting and things like that if we’re going to share money,” Wickersham said. “It’s county money. It’s miles of red tape.”

Max Egener can be reached at megener@nrtoday.com and 541-957-4217. Or follow him on Twitter @maxegener.

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City Reporter

Max Egener is the city reporter for The News-Review. He has a master's degree from the University of Oregon, and is an avid skier and backpacker.

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