Nutrition Gets a Boost at Red Barn


Sara Thompson, KP News

Photo: Adobe stock

The Red Barn staff and students have much to celebrate. Thanks to a grant from the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD), they will soon have a much-improved kitchen. And funding from Pierce County has allowed them to transform a storage room into a multipurpose classroom that doubles their usable space. 

Susan Ricketts, the food and garden coordinator, is thrilled to receive the TPCHD grant. 

“The grant was designed to improve healthy eating in our community,” she said. “The health department asked for ideas, including from our students at the Red Barn. At least 100 ideas came in, and a committee met to look at them all. We formed the ideas into six projects, and then voting took place online and at the Livable Fair. The idea for the Red Barn – kitchen improvement with a full-sized double oven and stovetop for better food for our students, and then a plan to offer cooking classes – won.” 

There have been a few roadblocks in implementing the grant. Clint Rosson, Red Barn’s executive director, said that the building is wired “like a Christmas tree” and bringing the kitchen wiring up to the standard required for a big oven would have used the entire grant budget. They decided to install a propane stove. A new sink and improved cabinetry will complete the project.

“Construction is going crazy right now and it is hard to find a plumber and electrician to do the work,” Rosson said. “But we hope to have the new kitchen up and running by fall when school opens.”

Ricketts, who has been working in kitchens since she was 18, is excited. The current kitchen only has a small convection oven and a microwave. 

“I can bake about eight cookies at a time, so it can take all day to make cookies for 40 kids,” she said. “Now we will be able to cook real food and teach the kids to cook real food. I am not a processed food fan.” 

She and volunteers plan to have cooking classes for adults soon after the kitchen is remodeled, including canning, baking and nutrition. 

Despite the current inadequate kitchen, Ricketts is proud of the shift in eating habits she has seen since she arrived a few years ago. She recalled a student working on a project that required her to find images of food. 

“She looked perplexed, saying she couldn’t find many pictures. She had found some of Oreo cookies and a hot dog,” Ricketts said. “When I found picture of a carrot, the student commented that she hadn’t thought of the carrot as food. I knew then that I had a job to do. I am happy to say that rarely if ever do they ask for ranch dressing to use as a dip for the vegetables anymore.” 

The multipurpose room remodel transformed a storage area into a well-lit, insulated room. Rosson said the room was initially going to be for basketball, but when the board saw the finished work, they decided it should be used as a classroom. 

Rosson, who has a background in teaching trades, will start with a small engine class. He said that they plan to give a series of courses, such as sewing and electrical, that will be introductions to the trade courses taught at Peninsula High. There are also plans afoot to provide a covered outdoor area for basketball, as the current hoop in the parking area is used year-round. 

The Red Barn, sitting on 8 acres just south of Key Center, was first established by several community churches, under the leadership of Waypoint Church. In 2013, the organization incorporated as a 501(c)(3) and no longer has any religious affiliation. Initially working with about 20 middle and high school students, the Red Barn serves at least double that number now. 

Students arrive at the Red Barn after school and spend about 45 minutes on homework before having a healthy snack. There are 30 laptops (donated by Rotary Club) available, a few to loan if students need to work at home, and a printer. Additional activities include foosball, basketball, field trips, art classes (provided by Two Waters Arts Alliance) and talks on such topics as bullying and violence prevention. 

Kellie Bennett, the program director, manages the day-to-day operation. Bennett’s background is in English and history. She worked teaching financial literacy before coming to the Red Barn. She ensures there is always adequate supervision, communicates with parents about upcoming activities, and sometimes helps with homework and occasionally with discipline. 

“I really like teaching life skills,” she said. “Our goal is to have our students not just survive but thrive, to go through life really enjoying things.”

The Red Barn is open from 2:30 to 6 p.m. five days a week during the school year and for six weeks in the summer from 1 to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.