To close out the year, we had a chance to speak with Portland chef Perry Perkins. Chef Perry helps run SimplySmartDinnerPlans.com. Listening to him talk about cooking makes our mouths water, but, beyond tips for how to prepare delicious and healthy meals, Chef Perry has his own story to share, and it's a moving one.
As a kid, Chef Perry, like thousands of kids in Oregon, didn't always have enough food at home. Growing up with a single mom with a disability, they relied on public assistance, SNAP and school lunch. With the help of these supports and other important people in his life, Chef Perry was fortunate to become a professional chef, instructor and cookbook author. When it comes to making the case for ending hunger, few people are more passionate or more articulate in conveying not only the urgency, but the extraordinary benefits that our whole community stands to gain.
Read our Q&A with Cheff Perry below. Then share his story with family and friends. Invite them to join us in bringing the solutions to ending hunger to the forefront of public conversation by becoming a Partner.
Are you a native Oregonian? Tell us a little bit about what do you do?
I’m a native Oregonian. I was born in Portland, moved to Georgia briefly and moved back when I was six years old. I grew up in Portland’s Rockwood neighborhood with a single mom. We were on public assistance, food stamps and welfare. It was a pretty low-income situation. When I was 10 years old, my dad came back into scene after he moved back to the area. He and his grandfather were professional chefs. I began working with him in his restaurants. Starting when I was a teen, I worked in local kitchens, and did a lot of cooking for church groups that I was with.
What are some of the things that you like best about Oregon?
I’ve been to Africa and Europe, and a lot of other places in the U.S., and I have to say that Oregon is pretty laid back. People are friendlier here than other places that I’ve been. There’s more of a giving spirit, more of a desire to help one another. I like to fish, hunt, camp and hike. The trade-off of course if the rain. We like the trees. We like the grass and we wouldn’t have all of that without the rain. I don’t own an umbrella, so I’m a native.
What led you to care about fighting hunger?
I grew up with hunger. I have a terrible short-term memory, but good long-term memory. I can remember the weeks that we dealt with just having potatoes and bricks of government cheese to eat. I remember seeing the look on my mom’s face when there wasn’t enough food in the house.
I didn’t realize it then, but there were times when I went to bed with a little something to eat, but she went to bed without anything. I know that, as a parent, if there were only enough for one, my child is going to have it. Medically my mother wasn’t able to work. We didn’t even have a car.
Everyone has ups and downs. We get bad times here, and we think, “We have to tough through it, things will get better.” I have that hope that if I work harder, things will get better. Some people don’t have hope. They see a long grey future.
For parents, the priority is that their kids not go hungry. Not having enough food to give your kids has an effect on the parents in that home. I look at my seven year old daughter and think how would I feel if I had to put her to bed hungry and how would I respond to everything else in my life if i had to do that? I don’t want anyone to go through that.
I think there needs to be more voices out there bringing this to our attention. There’s something wrong with kids going to bed hungry every night in the richest country in the world.
How does your current work (SimplySmartDinnerPlans.com) tackle hunger?
People who’ve never been in the position of being hungry think that a food box will make things better. That’s giving someone a fish instead of teaching someone to fish. That’s the perspective that we come at it from. We teach free planning, nutrition, shopping, and hands-on cooking classes for at-risk teens and families, and provide weekly meal plans and shopping lists. You can prepare healthy food on a low-income budget...you just have to know how.
You can’t eat healthy if you don’t know how to cook healthy. That’s one thing we talk about on our blog. I get a sense of personal satisfaction out of it. I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants. Kitchens are hot, crowded busy rooms with a lot of people who aren’t always in a good mood, but I like to hand a plate of food to someone. I like to see a kids’ face light up when they get to flip an omelette.
You’ve shared before that, growing up, you relied on public nutrition supports like SNAP. Can you share a little bit about what those nutrition dollars meant for you and your family? What kind of difference did it make in your life?
I was in a special situation. Even though we were on food stamps, my mom grew up on a farm in the Dalles. They never ate anything processed. She didn’t know how to cook processed food. What she was buying was real food. I didn’t grow up on a lot of boxed and packaged things. I had that going for me and my nutrition was probably better than a lot of other people.
Right now, in this country, we have a third and fourth generation of people who grew up in houses that didn’t cook. Some kids in my classes have told me that they’ve never been in the produce department before.
If we’re going to break the cycle, we need education on teaching kids about healthy foods and how to prepare them. Diseases like diabetes and obesity come from not eating well. We take kids to the store and ask them what their least favorite vegetable is. Universally it’s brussel sprouts. So, we buy brussel sprouts and they cook them with a little bacon, seaonings, and chicken stock, and the kids love them!
Did you also rely on school nutrition programs?
I was in school lunch program. Back then, I had to work in the cafeteria to earn free school lunch. It was fine with me because I had experience doing it.
What are the one or two things that you wish every Oregonian knew about SNAP and/or hunger?
We give lip service to it, but I really believe that it comes down to the bigger issue of poverty.
Given our current economic situation, most of us are much closer to poverty than we even realize. A couple of paychecks and where would we be?
We need to understand the socio-economic reasons that people are in these positions. When you’re talking about a single mom with two kids who tries to go get a job and would have to pay 80 percent of her income in child care. That’s not reasonable or feasible. I think a hard look needs to be taken at what’s making people poor in this country.
There must be something very disheartening about going out and working and working and the debt is growing a little bit more every month. To a large extent, we set a lot of people up to fail.
Our state has persistently high hunger rates. Fighting hunger can seem like an awfully big challenge. Why should people be optimistic that we can end hunger?
There’s a resiliency to the northwest in general and Oregon specifically. There’s still a pioneer spirit here. We do what we prioritize. If we decide this is something we want to do, we do it. I think it’s a matter of education and awareness of what the real issues and problems are and how we can solve it.
I think we live in a very compassionate, caring part of the country. If we can clear up misconceptions a lot more can be done. I went to this year’s food security summit in Corvallis, and it was very heartening to see how many people showed up to it...it was a packed house. A lot were college kids and local folks who wanted to help. I’m helping because I’ve been there. I’ve been one of those kids. Someone helped me and it’s my turn to pay it forward.
Do you think you’d be where you are today without having had access to SNAP?
It’s a two-fold situation. Between the public assistance we received and some important people in my life who came along at different times, I’m in a really good place.
What are the results that you’ll think we’ll see as a state if we invest more in fighting child hunger and hunger among adults?
It would turn everything around. I think it’s the key to everything. A child who’s not getting proper nutrition isn’t going to do well in school, is not going to do well socially. if you don’t have that feeling of safety, of coming home to a safe place where there’s food, heat and parents, it’s going to be difficult. These are things a child needs so they can focus on their education.
That’s the future of everything. That’s the future of our whole county. Kids are the people who we’re turning our country over to. Child hunger has to change. We need to invest everything in our future there. That’s the hope -- make the best possible next generation.
During the holidays, there is a lot of attention given to those struggling in our midst. We see their faces in the news and hear their stories. What would you like to see us do as a community to bring sustained attention to the stories of people who are living on the brink and struggling to make ends meet throughout the year?
I think people need a window into this world. We need to see the people and relate to them.
To address one aspect of the problem, I think there needs to be a reality t.v. show about a group that goes into communities or schools or people’s homes and helps them learn how to cook fresh, nutritious foods that they’re not used to.
I don’t think another book on the subject will help. The people who buy the books are those who already know about the problem. I spend a lot of my time preaching to the choir, because, often, the choir is the only ones who are tuning in.
I think we all know the core problem: People can’t get jobs or the jobs they get aren’t sufficient to cover their costs.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
People might want to check out SimplySmartDinnerPlans.com. It’s a weekly subscription-based recipe and meal planning service that I run. Subscribers can choose from one of three dinner menus: Classic, Heart-Healthy (diabetic-friendly), or Gluten free. I can’t think of a more ideal program for people because there’s no cost. You get free recipes, free menu plans and free online assistance. We even shoot videos to answer their food and cooking questions.
MY KITCHEN is our hands-on learning program; a series of basic nutrition, planning, shopping, and cooking classes for at-risk youth and families. There’s no charge to sign up for the dinner plans program , but it helps us do what we do. These classes cover the primary skills and techniques required to plan, shop for, and cook healthy, affordable meals at home, using basic cooking equipment that these young people are likely to have available starting out on their own. Think of it as “Home Ec.” for kids who may have never had a stable home environment to learn these essential skills from.