School Garden News – Davenport, California

Cooking, gardening program in Davenport serves up green principles

Rachael Ray’s got nothing on Auden Heitzler. Like a Food Network star, the Pacific School fifth-grader chops through an onion with uncanny skill, holding the base of the knife with one palm as she guides the blade with the other.

Her laser focus is understandable, considering she and three classmate sous chefs have less than two hours to prepare the crunchy slaw that will fill the Num Cha Gio Pale spring rolls for the exotic lunch menu she designed. In just 90 minutes, they will serve a Cambodian-inspired meal of Khmer baked chicken or tofu with a short-grain white rice to 100 hungry kids and teachers on top of red-checked table cloths as classical music softly fills the background.

Finished with a sliced mango and lime milk, the scene inside the school’s ocean-view lunch room is reminiscent of a Parisian bistro specializing in fusion food. But then again, most restaurant patrons aren’t encouraged by teachers during lunch to mind their manners, then asked to bus their own trays.

For nearly 25 years, fifth- and sixth-grade students at the Davenport public school have been cooking their own noontime meals through a revolutionary program taught by former Whale City Bakery and Grill owner Stephanie Raugust, now a local caterer who launched the project two decades ago as a parent displeased with unhealthy, unoriginal school food. The school is also ever-mindful of its relatively new culinary mission: Using as many organic, locally produced products as possible, including vegetables and herbs grown in its own garden.

Even before celebrity chefs and reality cooking shows became all the rage, the program has long been part of why half of the school’s enrollment consists of transfer students from nearby districts, including Santa Cruz, Bonny Doon and Pescadero. Other schools in the county have student gardens and vocational courses dealing with food and agriculture, but “Stephanie’s program really draws them in,” said Pacific School’s business manager, Noel Block.

Up to 100 students and adults buy the school lunch every day at $3-$3.50 a pop, though some students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Although Raugust is charged with overseeing the big operation, Block said the earthy cook “is fully qualified to run a three ring circus” considering her many years as a restaurateur.

While the Food Lab and its partner program, the Life Lab garden project, are designed to foster self-confidence, culinary skills and cultural awareness of other dietary traditions, the school has energized the curriculum with a new commitment to teaching and practicing sustainability. While many other school districts are working toward “greening” their lunch programs, most still buy bulk produce, meat and other lunch staples from large providers.

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