CHEFS program at Alston Middle School, Summerville

CHEFS Program At Alston Middle School, Summerville

Tue 16 Aug 2011

Story by Shannon Hudak

At Alston Middle School (AMS) in Summerville, SC, almost half of our students have a free or reduced lunch rate, and a normal dinner comes in a grease-soaked paper bag with a side of fries. There’s also a soul-food influence in our area that translates into meals deep fried or loaded with pork fat. And food is valued by the students; even the most disengaged student will do just about anything for food—even write.

Case in point: I once brought in a chef friend to do a cooking demonstration and serve my eighth graders three courses packed with vegetables: spring greens salad, eggplant fritters, carrot-coconut soup. Though some students balked, most were thrilled tipping back little pixie cups of pureed carrot. The students then wrote reviews of our “restaurant,” some complaining about the service (me) and the atmosphere (cinderblock) of my classroom, but all hailing the vegetables.

So why are our children eating so much junk? The answer to that is complex, but undoubtedly related to poverty, working and single parents, lack of time, and schools already struggling to afford bulk-bought processed lunch foods.

That is, until now. Charleston Slow Foods pitched a healthy eating initiative, starting with a $3,000 grant, to Leadership Dorchester’s Class of 2011, a leadership development group of local business professionals that is part of the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce. Leadership Dorchester loved the idea, and in conjunction with Trident Technical College and Slow Foods, has chosen AMS as the focus for their service project this year, dubbed CHEFS: Culinary & Horticultural Education For Students. The goal of this program is to engage as many students and stakeholders as possible in a structured and sustainable program which promotes healthy eating habits.

Our plan is three-pronged:

1. We will establish a garden club, which will maintain our on-campus “farm” and promote home-gardening.

2. We will engage students as sous chefs, who will create healthful recipes for our school lunch with the grant money slated for local farms’ produce.

3. We will implement a series of lessons across the curriculum to take advantage of this hands-on learning opportunity.

Our cafeteria staff will be trained in Trident Technical College’s culinary arts program. We have also received master gardening advice and wonderful support from the HEN project, Hunger Ends Now, a local organization started by two nurses who got their hands dirty—literally—to feed those in need.

When students heard of new sous chef positions for the school’s cafeteria, they filled out applications in droves. I chose largely based on passion; it spreads like flames, and the six chefs will serve as ambassadors to other kids. One of our young chefs, Tatyanna, can rattle off different recipes for curries from memory. The project has barely sprouted, and already they have been asked to speak to a group of fifth graders at another school.

The Woodlands Inn, a five-star resort and restaurant tucked away a few miles from our school, is hosting cooking lessons in their kitchen as well as cultivating a half acre vegetable and herb garden for us on their grounds. At AMS, we will be planting a “lasagna garden,” as well as herbs, vegetables, and possibly grapes in the courtyard behind our cafeteria, largely with soil, compost, and reused wooden shipping crates all garnered by Leadership Dorchester’s hard work encouraging business donations.

As the project progresses, we hope to engage students in meaningful conversations, lessons, and activities about nutrition, diet, and gardening. We hope that students will interact with the garden to develop a deeper appreciation of the “farm to fork” process. In the end, we expect to create a documentary for the school website, maintain the garden in years to come, assist with local food banks, lead other schools in developing like programs, and inspire local families to make healthy choices. Perhaps the most exciting part is in knowing that the lessons we create, the structure we design, and the young chefs we coach can all flow out into other schools, other districts, other states, other futures.

After all, if you grow it yourself, you know what it’s made of, and nothing tastes better than that.

About the author: Shannon Hudak is a foodie, new gardener and the teacher liaison for the CHEFS program at Alston Middle School in Summerville, SC.

Images: Top photo by Jade McDuffie/Staff, The Post and Courier. Bottom left photo used with permission by Jim Tatum, The Summerville Journal Scene.


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