Ellie Dutcher

Ellie Dutcher serves banana bread to students at McNary Heights Elementary School in Umatilla on Dec. 19, 2019. Dutcher is one of nine FoodCorps members in Oregon and will be located in Umatilla County until the end of the school year.

UMATILLA — The best is yet to come for Ellie Dutcher.

Dutcher, who recently graduated from Southern Oregon University, moved to Umatilla this summer to serve as one of nine FoodCorps service members across Oregon.

Being part of FoodCorps — an AmeriCorps offshoot — means whipping up snacks and serving nutritious lesson plans at McNary Heights Elementary all year long. During their one-year terms, service members like Dutcher aim to connect kids to healthy food.

But what she’s really excited for is growing a garden — which will likely house herbs, as well as all the makings for salsa — with the students this spring.

“We’ll plant the seeds, and we’ll grow them together,” she said. “And in the spring, we’ll get to eat them together. That’s where I think the magic will happen. When kids are that connected to the food, you see some minds change.”

Because part of her role is introducing foods that will be in the cafeteria to Umatilla’s elementary-schoolers via taste tests, Dutcher knows that kids can be critics when it comes to cuisine.

“Kids will look at me like, ‘Oh, that’s gross,’” she said. “I slowly convince them to try something, and their face will light up.”

Earlier in the year, she taste-tested pluots — a member of the stone fruit family — for the kids and she said they’re now a staple at the salad bar.

And while Dutcher seems at ease in the Umatilla community, she never thought she’d move to Oregon in the first place. Born in Napa Valley, Calif., she said Southern Oregon University was last on her list during the college application process years ago.

“But then I saw Ashland and fell in love. Wow, I am in love with Oregon,” she said.

But before getting her interdisciplinary degree centered around environmental science, Spanish, outdoor leadership and sustainability, Dutcher took a solo trip abroad to Southeast Asia and South America right after high school.

“It was a lot of being uncomfortable most of the time and not knowing where you’re going to be sleeping one night or not knowing people,” she said. “Letting that discomfort in and realizing it’s what you chose.”

The journey introduced her to many things she’d never tried before, including rock climbing.

“I haven’t stopped since,” she said.

An outdoor enthusiast, she’s still trying to find her footing in the sage desert landscape of Eastern Oregon.

“The environment is pretty different out here, and that was big for me,” she said.

But that hasn’t stopped her from trying new things. She said she enjoyed walking nature trails over the summer, and she recently signed up for a ceramics class in the area. She’s also taking time to learn a little bit more about plants in Oregon.

Dutcher said that just a few weeks ago, she found the perfect word to describe Umatilla — accepting.

“No matter where anyone has come from or what they’ve experienced, people are so accepting in this community. It’s blown me away,” she said.

But her job and new surroundings aren’t without challenges. Dutcher said it’s been difficult to transition from a college atmosphere where friends live nearby, to living alone in the new place.

“I’m really grateful for this time, and I’m hoping to come out of the job, and this place without many people I am close to, more comfortable with myself,” she said.

And when it comes to teaching kids about how to make healthy food choices, there can be a disconnect between the dream and the reality of the job.

“Sometimes the healthier option is way more expensive than what I’m trying to steer kids away from,” she said. “It’s been rough trying to battle that. I’m trying to figure out a happy medium of what’s doable.”

She’s not sure yet where her adventures will find her this time next year, but Dutcher seems glad she came.

“I feel really grateful I was put in this community in particular,” she said. “It’s allowed me to know a part of Oregon that I didn’t know beforehand. I’m finding so many beautiful things about it. If you’d just driven through to stop for gas, you’d never know.”

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