vertical hydroponic garden

written by AmeriCorps Food Educator, Hannah Allen-Young

I started my position as an AmeriCorps Food Educator with Common Threads in the Summer of 2019. I felt simultaneously ready to teach and way out of my depth. Most of all though I was excited to get started on doing work that I believe in—getting youth invested and excited about food, plants, cooking, and the communities that grow from cultivating these skills and knowledge. Early on in my service, I stepped into a leadership role with Common Threads’ new partnership with the Whatcom Detention School.

At Common Threads our mission has always been to give youth the skills and knowledge to cultivate and prepare nutritious foods. Through this work, we aim to support youth in deepening their relationship with themselves, their environment, and their community. Common Threads is always seeking new ways to impact our community, and the Whatcom Detention School: Healthy Snack Program is a great example of this

For me personally, food and cooking have always symbolized community. As people, we foster connection and culture through shared meals and conversation. Teaching cooking classes at the Whatcom Detention School allowed me to not only connect with the youth over a shared meal but for them to connect with each other, all while developing skills and knowledge around food and cooking.

I believe that knowledge and access are the greatest barriers to making the food choices that fuel you well both physically and mentally. Without knowledge we can be intimidated by unknown foods, uncomfortable with trying new things, and lack the practical skills to cook food from scratch. Without access—whether it be due to food apartheid, finances, or being incarcerated—we cannot begin to utilize and expand on our knowledge and skills.

Over the course of the past year in the detention program we’ve made countless dishes, including: tacos with homemade tortillas, root vegetable latkes, hummus wraps, curry, and black bean burgers. Making these dishes has created opportunities to learn different cooking skills, nutrition facts, budgeting, recipe development, and where to access ingredients out in the community. While our programming has shifted and is now over Zoom instead of in person it has also expanded. Thanks to a grant opportunity with Lettuce Grow, we have been able to install a hydroponic garden in the detention school (see image above). This new asset  will allow students to not only cook with ingredients they grow themselves, but gain greater knowledge of and connection to the natural world. 

In the words of the full time teachers at the Whatcom Detention School: 

The Common Threads program provides our students with opportunities to prepare and cook healthy recipes with natural ingredients.  Our instructor Hannah’s knowledge and enthusiasm has been well-received by our students, who enjoy preparing and tasting the recipes she teaches.  Many of our students have never cooked before and it is exciting to see them learn new skills and gain confidence in the kitchen.  We are so grateful for the grant that provided an indoor garden setup for our program, and we are looking forward to growing and harvesting fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs to incorporate into our nutrition program here.”

The story of one student has always stuck with me. He was in my very first class at Detention where we made Hummus in a Blanket. He had never made or tried hummus before, but was excited to prepare and eat it. He ended up really liking it and enjoyed the opportunity to create his own spice blend.

After that first lesson I didn’t see this student for a while, but one Monday he was back and excited to cook. The first thing he asked me when I walked in was if I could give him another copy of the hummus recipe we had made before. He explained that he had tried to make the hummus on his own but had lost the recipe so it didn’t turn out very well, but he wanted to try to make it again.

It’s not often that I feel my heart warmed over hummus, but this simple interaction exemplified so perfectly the purpose of this program: To not just create healthy snacks, but to instill in these students the confidence to make these choices for themselves. This same student would go on to help with planning future recipes, including his idea of veggie burgers and carrot fries (which turned out really yummy!). He would also talk often about his desire to open up his own food truck someday. If he does, I’ll be first in line.    

Want to try some of the dishes we’ve cooked together? Check out our recipes page!

Is there a place in the community where you’d like to see Common Threads cooking, gardening, and eating with kids? We’d love to talk! Send us a note at