By Tammy L. Lane
A culinary experiment is taking off at The Learning Center at Linlee, where high school students help plan the menus and cook their own meals. Their World Café & Bistro provides a tremendous and tasty variety, along with an enhanced sense of community.
“It’s more like a family dinner than a lunch line,” said sophomore Katie Goforth, a leader in the Lexington school’s emerging culinary arts program.
Each day, one of these students stands up front to describe the menu and share quick facts about the source country’s food, culture and social issues, along with a word of the day in the target language.
January’s menus, for example, present dishes from Mexico, Spain, Central America and the Caribbean. February will spotlight Asia, March is Europe, April is Africa and the Middle East, and in May, students will select previous favorites to revisit. Classmate Miriam Leasor agreed most enjoy the different foods and the environment, where the entire student body dines together.
“It’s a big change, so it took people awhile to get used to it,” Miriam said, “but it makes them feel at home because not every student eats at the table with their family.”
The original bistro launched four years ago when students asked for a voice in their food choices, including more organic options.
“They also were interested in learning about different cultures and international foods,” recalled Mojgan Martin, who coordinates the bistro and teaches Spanish.
The initiative began as a lone class, with students cooking on hot plates in a corner of the cafeteria and offering samples at lunchtime, but the momentum led TLC to overhaul the way it nourishes students.
Last semester, the school board approved TLC’s proposal to drop the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program and its traditional cafeteria in favor of an expanded, self-sustaining bistro operation. The in-house aquaponics garden turns out basil and cilantro, for instance.“Not only do we show them how to grow the food, how to prep it and how to serve it, we want to change the way kids think about nutrition,” Martin said.
But the school-based model relies heavily on allies like Locust Trace AgriScience Center, which provides fresh produce in exchange for compost, and Glean Kentucky, where students might harvest at local farms for other community organizations in exchange for a basket of peppers. The culinary students also cater events for fellow schools and other groups.
The combined efforts mean TLC’s continental breakfast is free for everyone in the building; lunch is also free for students, and employees pay $4. TLC also offers pick-up lunches for “It’s About Kids” Support Services staff.
The group of nearly 20 culinary students prepares lunch from scratch – often using recipes they have experimented with and developed under the guidance of Chef Savanna Whitaker. She typically divides the prep space for salads, entrees and sides, and puts the students to work in teams.
“It keeps everybody organized and on the same page,” she said.
At serving time, if someone doesn’t care for the themed dishes on the hot bar, they can opt for a sandwich from the deli express. But Whitaker encourages the teenagers to branch out from pizza and burgers.
“We try to open their minds up to as many flavor combinations as there are,” she said. “There’s always something different, and we try to get the kids to try new things.”
Martin and other teachers have developed the instructional components working alongside colleagues in Sullivan University’s culinary studies program. Whitaker, a recent Sullivan graduate, demonstrates everything from proper cutting and basting techniques to kitchen maintenance.
The students also compost their food waste and recycle diligently. Trash is minimized because they wash the dishes, silverware and glasses. This program calls for logic, management skills, team-building and basic accounting to buy supplies, not to mention a customer-service mindset.
While students do attend core-content classes, the new curriculum also reinforces key subjects – for instance, using recipes to practice math concepts and reading comprehension. Kate FitzGerald, TLC’s universities and community liaison, also arranges valuable sessions, such as a nutrition survey through the University of Kentucky and a field trip to check out Berea College’s culinary program.
“At every single stage, there’s a learning experience. It’s an apprenticeship of sorts,” Martin said. “We want (our students) to be employable in whatever they decide to go into.”
Whitaker agreed TLC’s new program prepares students to go out into the world. “Being in a kitchen, you learn so many more skills than just learning how to cook,” she said. “You have to learn how to be organized, plan ahead and think ahead. It’s a lot of problem-solving. It helps you not just in a kitchen, but also if you’re a secretary or a doctor. Time management and organizing can help you in any job.”
Tammy L. Lane is communications specialist and website editor for Fayette County Public Schools.
Courtesy of KyForward