Innovator Somphane Hunter: Something’s Cooking in Poplar

Somphane Hunter creates community in the kitchen
Photos by Kim Sanford

Tulare County produces more than 240 agricultural commodities for human consumption. But a crop of student chefs, otherwise known as the Poplar Food Network (PFN), is also growing and flourishing these days in the Central Valley. The students are learning how to cook healthy foods — and are transforming their families’ lifestyles. They even star in their own YouTube cooking channel.

Somphane Hunter

This success story was made possible from the vision and hard work of Somphane Hunter, a teacher at Pleasant View Elementary School in Poplar and a Pleasant View Education Association  member. In September 2018, she created PFN, which provides Poplar students in grades 4-8 and their families with a free after-school program combining food, community and technology. The program is funded by CTA’s Institute for Teaching (IFT), and workshops are continuing this year.

PFN is a collaboration among:

  • Food Link of Tulare County, a food bank that offers its teaching kitchen and garden in Exeter for classes, provides transportation, and even teaches some classes.
  • Paint Poplar, a social justice community advocacy group created by Hunter.
  • Outlaw Consulting Group, a digital strategy and marketing company, which films the classes and created a YouTube channel to showcase student talents.

“It’s been exciting to conduct this project beyond my classroom and into the community,” says Hunter. “Our students and families are collaborating with peers, adults, businesses and organizations while exploring what a healthy eating lifestyle looks like. They have ventured out into the world on field trips, including Homeboy Industries in Chinatown in Los Angeles, Woodlake Botanical Gardens, and a food day event with Food Link.”

Student chefs’ skills are on display during a class with Hunter called Cooking With Color as they whip up a veggie-chicken stir fry. Boys and girls use sharp knives to carefully and safely cut the veggies, with nary an injury, despite tears from the onions. They listen to directions and work in teams, gathered around the hot electric skillets in the cafeteria at Pleasant View. Hunter darts from station to station, offering encouragement and a dash of oyster sauce to spice things up. Excitement, happiness and delicious smells mix together before the group finally sits down to dinner.

Tonia Gloria and her son Victor Govea, a seventh grader, love the program. “We are spending more time together as a family, and Victor is helping out more at home,” says Gloria. “We’ve made spring rolls and zucchini spaghetti.”

Hunter on the line with her young chefs.

Some students are nervous trying new foods. Luzceleste Arellano, a fifth grader, had never tried spring rolls or sushi before making them, but now she loves them. She has also developed a fondness for mangoes and cucumbers, and helps with the cooking at home.

“Parents tell me they are thrilled to have their children helping in the kitchen,” says Hunter. “This has motivated parents to be involved, and families are making healthy meals at home.”

Hunter, who is Laotian, learned to cook from her mother while growing up in nearby Porterville. “We raised our own vegetables, and I witnessed the slaughtering of animals. My dad hunted. Today everything is so prepackaged and processed.”

A few years ago, as a single mom, she became concerned about the nutrition of her children, who considered Hot Cheetos and soda to be lunch. When discussing nutrition, she asked students to list healthy foods, and they could only name salad. She began advocating for healthier food choices in her school’s cafeteria, which now has fresh vegetables and a salad bar. It was time, Hunter decided, to expand their food options. To help create PFN, she applied for and received an IFT grant last year in the amount of $17,545.

Our 2019-2020 Innovation Issue

Somphane Hunter is one of the innovative educators we highlight this year. Meet the rest:

The videos by Outlaw Consulting — posted on YouTube and on the community’s Facebook page — have drawn hundreds of followers and instilled a great deal of pride in this community, which is mostly Latino and low-income.

“One parent teared up seeing their child on video, and it made me want to cry,” says Hunter. “At first the kids were stiff and uncomfortable being filmed, but soon they forgot they were on camera and became very confident.”

Her advice for educators wanting to try something outside the box is to have fun. “Dive in and go for it. When you overprepare, you drown from the stress and don’t get to enjoy it with the kids. We learn as we go. If I had waited until I was an expert, we’d never get there.” See  our video at cta.org/SomphaneHunterIFT, and check out the Poplar Food Network videos at facebook.com/poplarcommunity.

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