Highlander Chefs educates and nourishes students at “Homegrown Meals!”

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Martin Lopez/HIGHLANDER

The savory smell of pasta, the sizzling of hot oil and a booth setup inside Glen Mor Market attracted a small crowd to “Homegrown Meals!,” an event held by Highlander Chefs. As an up-and-coming student organization that strives to tackle the problem of food insecurity by educating students on cooking, Highlander Chefs hopes that students can have healthy alternatives to what many consider the easier and more convenient options of fast food and microwavable meals. From 5 to 6:30 p.m. cooks from the organization gave demonstrations for organic, vegetarian pasta. Recipe pamphlets were handed out after the demonstration for those interested in cooking the pasta for themselves. The recipe itself consisted entirely of ingredients that can be purchased from Glen Mor Market at an affordable price.

Highlander Chefs is run by its president Dakota Salazar, a fourth-year neuroscience major applying for medical school in the spring, who essentially built the organization from the ground up. Salazar found Highlander Chefs in his second year and felt that it was a unique organization that was a fit for him. However, at this time, the organization not only had no events organized, but was extremely small. By the end of his second year, the members of the Highlander Chefs board, who were all fourth-year students and graduating, left the organization in the hands of Salazar.

In order to keep the organization running, Salazar recruited two people to form a board with the minimum number of members. “It’s really funny because I had nobody to help form a board with me. Everyone was leaving that year,” he tells me, “I literally ran into two of my friends at Rivera and asked if they were willing help me out with this. Thankfully they agreed.” In the nearly two years since then, with Salazar at the helm, Highlander Chefs now has 12 members and a full lineup of events planned for this school year. The organization even received $20,000 from the UC Global Food Initiative (UC GFI) this fall quarter. The UC GFI is an institution devoted to developing solutions to the problems of food security, health and sustainability found in UC’s.

The Tuesday night event was attended by UCR Chancellor Wilcox’s wife, Diane Del Buono, who felt that the organization could make an impact on campus. “I came because I love to support campus activities and I think this is a great idea to help students,” she shares.

But, as second-year Biology major and assistant social media chair of Highlander Chefs Danielle Pente emphasizes, the organization is meant for more than just meetings and event planning. Pente joined after a Facebook post by the group caught her interest and has enjoyed her experience ever since. “Not only am I in an organization that is making a difference,” explains Pente, “but I’ve met this amazing group of people that I consider my friends.” She says that members socialize not only at meetings but at different places on campus and even in shared classes. “It’s a really big networking and social opportunity,” she says. “If you’re asking yourself why you should join, the better question to ask is ‘Why shouldn’t I join?’”

As for the future of the organization, Salazar hopes to witness a bit of the fruits of his labor before his graduation in the spring. “I really hope that it (Highlander Chefs) makes an impact now, so we can show students that cooking isn’t as hard as people think it is,” he says. As for the impact this organization could have on other UC’s, Salazar expressed plans on branching out to more campuses. A Berkley chapter was considered but unfortunately did not gain enough traction, however, Salazar hopes that a similar organization can be founded elsewhere and eventually lead to cross-campus collaborations.

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