Ch.O.I.C.E. (Changing our Ideas about Education) Academy has a new kitchen. It’s not just any new kitchen, though. The kitchen is the center of a thriving farm to school (and back) program that has been slowly building momentum over the past two years. The program is one that looks to include students in the cultivation, preparation and of course, the enjoyment of locally grown food that is prepared at the school itself. Heading up the program are two WCMHS staff who also double as chefs and gardeners extraordinaire, Dustin Jones and Phil Gentile. Dustin and Phil are just getting warmed up with their vision for creating this vibrant program. Leadership and staff at Ch.O.I.C.E. have wanted to create a farm to school program for some time, and this dream is now becoming a reality.
Since the Ch.O.I.C.E. kitchen is the hub of the overall program, let’s start there. The kitchen was originally designed as a place where students from Ch.O.I.C.E. could eat their lunches, which were delivered from a local school each day, do small scale projects, and even make a meal from time to time. Then the decision was made to build the kitchen out to make it a commercial grade space which would allow the school to prepare and serve all student meals in-house versus getting their food from someplace else. This is where Dustin came into play, being a trained chef with a good deal of restaurant experience who happened to be working as a behavioral interventionist in the School Based Program (SBS). Dustin had a vision for creating a healthy, delicious school lunch program at the Academy. Dustin brought this idea to leadership at Ch.O.I.C.E. and SBS, and SBS Director Tiffiny Hubbard generously agreed to let Dustin transition to Ch.O.I.C.E. to learn about the program and begin work on the kitchen. Ch.O.I.C.E. director, Lisa Estivill, had long envisioned a farm to school program for students at the Academy, so she wasted no time in green lighting this project. After much hard work, various donations of major kitchen equipment, and several grants pursued and received, Dustin had a kitchen ready to go for the 2016-2017 school year. The Ch.O.I.C.E. kitchen received grants from National Life, Ben & Jerry’s, Merrimac Charitable Trust and other generous groups. Dustin navigated all the necessary steps to getting CH.O.I.C.E. designated as a Certified Eligible Program school, which meant all qualifying students would receive both free breakfast and lunch. This all was in place by the time schooled start last August, and since then, all meals and snacks have been caringly prepared daily by Dustin and his team. Dustin is now working to include more locally procured foods so school meals consist of more local produce, meat, dairy and other locally produced food through time.
The second aspect of the overall vision involved creating working connections with local farms to enhance Ch.O.I.C.E. student’s understanding of and appreciation for the food they eat. Phil Gentile, who was a long time restaurateur locally, began working with the Academy part time to bring his love for food, gardening and enjoying great food to the students. Phil made connections with Bear Roots Farm and Old Soul Farm and created summer programming that would allow several students to spend a few hours each week getting a first-hand account of how a small scale, organic farm works. Phil and Dustin, along with other dedicated staff at the school, also expanded the school’s garden by creating new raised beds, setting up a composting system, and involving students with the gardening process. During the summer of 2015, Phil began taking students up to Bear Roots during the school’s summer program. Through this process, the team discovered that some aspects of programming needed to be reworked to ensure that both the farm and the students profited from the experience. This meant that on certain days when a student was struggling with some difficult emotions, the group might need to look at other options, including taking educational fieldtrips to other farms or working at the Ch.O.I.C.E. garden. Now the connection with Old Soul farm will offer another option for students to experience what running a thriving farm is like. Phil plans to continue to incorporate student trips to area farms and composting and other businesses involved in the local food system to keep the students interested and learning.
The third aspect of the overall vision for the program is bringing the learning in the kitchen, garden and other program opportunities into the curriculum at Ch.O.I.C.E. Phil has created healthy cooking class, which consists of two 50 minute sessions each week, where students learn the basics about how to prepare and enjoy local, fresh foods. Dustin has created an internship in the kitchen for a student who expresses interest, and this has turned out to be a real benefit for both Dustin and the students involved. Dustin gets daily help to put together good meals and do all the work that a working kitchen requires. The student gets first-hand knowledge and vocational experience that will certainly benefit them through time, as well as class credits. Another idea that is coming to fruition is incorporating math and reading for students into their time either in the kitchen or garden. Measuring, reading and writing recipes, and even describing the delicious food from lunch can be great ways to give practical connections to a student’s academics learning. Phil and Dustin and other teachers from Ch.O.I.C.E. continue to find ways to mix the business of school with the pleasure of digging in the dirt and eating yummy, health food.
Today, Ch.O.I.C.E. kitchen is feeding all the students in grades 1-12. Dustin is able to use a least one locally grown vegetable in every meal. A contest to find a permanent name for the kitchen is in the works, and this is another way to connect students to the program and the food they eat. The Ch.O.I.C.E. garden is having additional raised beds added as well as fencing to keep hungry critters out, and the first plantings have gone into the soil. Students will be helping with the daily routines of watering and weeding as the first sprouts come up. As the program moves forward, the composing system may become the entire agencies centralized drop off for food scraps. This will expand the amount of great soil that students can help create for the school garden while also helping solve the issue of food waste for the agency as the 2020 composting law comes into effect. The kitchen may also expand one day to include daily meals for WCMHS staff outside of Ch.O.I.C.E., so people from other parts of the agency can enjoy local, homemade meals while supporting this great program. The Ch.O.I.C.E. kitchen and farm to school program is another example of the innovative and thoughtful programming that happens here at WCMHS, where both staff and those they serve benefit from dedicated and creative services that the agency and its programs are known for.
If you ever want to check out the garden or eat lunch at Ch.O.I.C.E, give Dustin a call at 476-1480 or email@example.com so he can prepare an extra plate for you.
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