Foodlab cooking program combines kitchen skills, healthy eating and science in Davenport
Six fifth-grade boys—most of whom are 10, but are quick to say that they are almost 11—crowd around Emilia Miguel, the food service director at Pacific Elementary in Davenport, in the school’s small kitchen. All the boys wash their hands and put on aprons. Over shouts of “Ms. Emilia, Ms. Emilia!,” Miguel starts assigning jobs: one boy is boiling water, one boy starts scooping pasta, and another cuts parchment paper for a baking project.
Having fifth- or sixth-grade students in Pacific Elementary’s kitchen is a daily occurrence, thanks to a program called Foodlab. Every day, with assistance from Miguel and Foodlab instructor Violi Law, they cook lunch for the entire pre-K-through-sixth-grade school.
“Many hands make light work,” Miguel says. “Sometimes we underestimate the ability [of kids]. As long as we don’t do that, they can do anything. They really show that in the kitchen.”
What looks like mayhem is, in fact, a well organized flow: each student is assigned to participate in Foodlab one day a week, wherein they leave their normal class for an hour and a half and join a group of four to six other students. The students rotate through various jobs on a monthly basis.
“We have four jobs,” explains Arthur Kumalo Alms, one of the fifth-grade boys in the kitchen. “We have the prep, we have the manager, we have the cook, and we have the baker. The prep cuts vegetables, the manager gets the lunch counts and keeps time. The baker bakes stuff and the cook cooks stuff.”
For the last two months of the school year, these students plan the school menu. Miguel works to make the menus successful without having to alter them too much. “There is one kid who is vegan and wanted to have vegan spanikopita, which is pretty much just spinach and tofu. So, to get the preschoolers to eat it, I went out there and tried it with them,” she says.
Trying new foods and focusing on fresh healthy produce is an important part of Foodlab. Plates filled with vibrant green salads are going out to preschoolers, who, amazingly, eat them.
“Last year there was a student in the preschool who would eat her salad every single day,” says kindergarten teacher Samira Hartje. “So, I would say to my students, ‘You know who eats her salad every day?’ and then by the end of the year, I had students who were eating their salad every day, because it was the thing to do.”
Beyond eating more fresh produce, the program comes with a lot of education about food issues. Every day, Miguel goes into the lunchroom and discusses topics such as nutrition, diabetes and the food system with the students.
“They understand the importance of knowing where their food comes from,” says Miguel. “Some of them ask me what farm the strawberries come from. One student said that what he got out of Foodlab was that when a plate of food was put in front of him, we could trust it.”
That transparency is easy to come by, as the program sources most of its food locally. They get a whopping 86 percent of produce from Alba Organics, a farmer-training program in Salinas. Other sources include donations from local farms such as Jacob’s Farm and Molino Creek, Costco and their own school garden.
The school as a whole seems to rally around the program: about 75 percent of students participate by purchasing lunch, and much of the staff eats there daily. “It’s the best meal I eat all day,” explains third and fourth grade teacher Lowell Walker. “I can’t cook that well even when I have the time to.”
For the students cooking, the program offers much-needed hands-on learning. “It is a really relevant application of content: math skills, reading skills and history,” says Hartje. “It gets at where does your food come from, how has it been used historically. Especially as we move into common core (standards testing), to have a real practical application of some school learning is important.”
The impacts of the program are not lost on the children. “Since I’ve done Foodlab, I’ve started cooking with my family a lot more than I ever had before,” says sixth grader Oliver Hudson.
“I’m really grateful to be in Foodlab because we get to make our own food and we don’t have to eat packaged food,” says Julien Devergranne, a fifth grade participant. “Most of the packaged food is kept in a freezer or somewhere for a really long time, and it’s usually junk food.”
Devergranne’s enthusiasm for fresh food points out a stark contrast between the eating experience at Pacific Elementary and most other schools in the county and across the country. Many public schools no longer have functional kitchens; instead, they have a central kitchen that prepares food and ships it out, or they heat packaged foods at school sites. In Watsonville, for example, two of the district’s high schools have kitchens, but none of the elementary schools do. For the elementary schools, everything has to be prepared at a central kitchen, sealed and shipped to school sites. They are not even legally allowed to chop up fruits and vegetables at the elementary schools because of food safety standards.
“Pacific Elementary is a small school that is lucky enough to have a lot of parent involvement,” says Allie Hoffman, who works for the Community Alliance for Family Farmers (CAFF) in Watsonville. Hoffman works closely with school districts to strengthen the bonds between school food programs and local farmers.
“The Watsonville school district serves food at 31 school sites, whereas there is only one in Davenport, plus Watsonville schools also serve breakfast. It really comes down to scale and resources.”
Hoffman runs the Harvest of the Month program, which brings in a new seasonal fruit or vegetable for schoolchildren to try. The educational efforts of CAFF are much needed in schools across the state. With obesity and diabetes on the rise, there is a national push to offer healthier school lunch options. A new law was recently passed that requires schools to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Schools now have to offer a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables, which is great, and students are required to take them, but so much of it ends up in the garbage,” says Hoffman. “You have to have the education around the foods as well.” Hoffman reports that one study found that the consumption of healthier food more than doubled when served in the cafeteria since the program started.
Despite the barriers, staff at Pacific Elementary see the potential impact the program could have in other schools.
“It could really transform the public school food system,” says Hartje. “It doesn’t have to be five cooks in a kitchen reheating food. It could be five cooks in a kitchen sharing their knowledge of food and taking ownership of it.”
PHOTO: There’s no lunch lady for kids at Pacific Elementary because students here cook healthy meals for their peers. EMILIA MIGUEL