Story by Paul Finkelstein

Paul Finkelstein teaches Culinary Arts at the Stratford Northwestern Secondary School in Stratford, Canada. Together with the students at the school they run a cafe called the Screaming Avacado:

“The Screaming Avocado offers healthy and delicious daily lunches to the student and staff of Stratford Northwestern Secondary School in Stratford, Canada. The meals are prepared by our students using locally sourced ingredients from farmers, producers and our own Seeds of Change Garden and Mud To Mouth Farm Project. The Screaming Avocado feeds up to 300 patrons every lunch hour from a black board menu which offers daily gourmet specials ranging from the more commonplace pasta, sandwiches, and pizzas to the more risky rabbit braised in white wine with olives, confit of duck, Moroccan lamb couscous, sushi, calamari sandwiches to name a few.
Our goal is simple. Connect youth to good, clean and fair local food and develop their ability to prepare healthy meals from scratch. Their assignments are to bring the recipes home and to prepare them for their families. To prepare healthy meals and enlighten their parents, grandparents and in the future their kids to fresh yummy food. They are the cross generational tool of change.

The Screaming Avocado is an extension of our thriving, innovative high school culinary arts program that has grown to include over 200 students per year; a large kitchen classroom; 3000 square feet of organic garden; an organic greenhouse; a six acre school farm initiative; a culinary club with national and international experience and outreach programs to elementary students”

I had the good fortune to be introduced to Paul and I have been continually impressed with the work that he is engaged in and the wonderful stories about the success of the cafe. In the first of a series of news stories – Paul has answered some questions for me:

Have you always been passionate about cooking and eating good food?
I was fortunate to grow up in a family that prepared all our meals from scratch. Both my parents were from humble backgrounds where all their meals were prepared using fresh, seasonal ingredients. They instilled the value of that in their children. One of my earliest childhood food memories is of chicken feet climbing out of the pot while visiting my grandmother. The aroma was delicious, as was the simple soup made from the broth. I have a flashback to my grandparents place, and my childhood, when I smell a perfect stock simmering away.

Do you think that appreciating food and learning to cook starts with your family life?

Definitely. Parents have the ability to sculpt their kids tastebuds and eating habits. Unfortunately, I think that many parents now are from the lost generation of foodies. Those that grew up on processed, instant food and have little kitchen skills to share. Today’s youth are learning that food is something that is thrown in the oven and eaten in minutes with no regard for taste, fresh ingredients, or nutrition. Easy is the key. This generation is missing the kitchen role model. There are no apron strings to hang from…. no sitting on the counter and rolling dough…they have no sense of satisfaction of preparing a recipe with mom or dad, or Nannie or Papa, and enjoying the fruits of their labour. Instead these kids experience the line-ups at big box stores waiting to try the new time-saving item that can be prepared in five minutes. We need to offer cooking classes to expectant parents and set the next generation of parents in the right direction.

Jamie has a belief that anyone can learn to cook, do you think that this is true as well?
Jamie is right. I hear from so many young people that they're afraid to take my class because they can't cook. So of course I ask, “Isn't that why you should take a cooking class?” They've seen so little cooking at home and haven't personally gone beyond the microwave. They're afraid of screwing up. Cooking includes making mistakes and learning from them. Some of my most memorable students have been the ones that feared food and cooking. They're the ones that show the greatest transformation and really learn to appreciate good food. There is nothing more satisfying than to take one of those “I can't cook” kids and have them step out of their cocoon and prepare great food!

When you first began working with the students at the college at times did it seem like your ideas would never be taken on board?

There's always skeptics to anything new or different. I joke that my 'different' includes teaching kids how to use fresh ingredients to make delicious food – how screwed up is that? I was very fortunate to have an administration that has supported every idea I've had, almost (I was stopped short of putting an 'edible petting zoo' in the school – I still think it has merit). When you're selling the idea of real food, using fresh ingredients, that taste great, even the biggest skeptics will stop talking when their mouths are full.

Was there any resistance to setting up the Screaming Avocado Café? If so does it still exist?
Our resistance came from the food service provider, and of course the students that thought they were going to lose their junk food. Now that we've been in place for a number of years I hear fewer complaints, but still have to work on some of the students. Parents hand their kids money to purchase lunch, but don't restrict what they eat. Chips and gravy with soda is the daily lunch among those determined to live on a diet of crap. These are the same students who find every fault with the Avocado. So we work at getting them to come down the hall, away from the allure of the deep fried fumes and into the Avocado to taste real food and break the resistance one meal at a time.

How do you cope with the fact that the college still has a café that sells junk food?

While I'd love to see the junk food gone, the reality is it's not leaving anytime soon. So I embrace it's presence and use it to educate. We're not going to easily get all kids to do a full turn around and eat only healthy food. It's silly to expect to change long existing diets, that are high in sugar and salt, overnight. Instead, we have to teach them about a balanced diet. My challenge is to get this group to enjoy good food, and teach them that locally sourced, freshly prepared food is delicious (or should I say “also delicious”). We have many kids that eat in the Screaming Avocado most days and have the odd day of fries. As long as the days of good food are outnumbering the bad, we are on the road to winning the battle.

What do you think the turning point is in terms of getting young people to give up junk food and start to eat good food?
I believe in moderation. The loudest voices for change grew up in a time when having junk food was a treat. We now have a generation where 'real food' is the treat. We need to put fresh ingredients in the hands of young people and teach them how to prepare their own food with it. They need to stop texting for a minute, pick-up a fresh piece of local fruit and give it a real taste and learn to appreciate it. We also need to make junk food less accessible. Schools in Canada sell junk to kids in order to support school programs, but with little concern for their health. We wonder why they can't concentrate, yet the basically encourage them to drink more soda and eat more sugar. One of my strongest weapons is peer pressure. Because all of the food in the cafe is prepared by the students for their peers, there is an incredible amount of pride over the finished product. They bring their friends in to eat it and the seed is planted.

What are some of the success stories in regards to the students turning their lives around through food?
I see food as an excellent tool for change. In the cafe during class we tackle many issues while prepping meals: racism, sexism, homophobia. We have seen narrow-minded, small town attitudes open to become the most community-minded, accepting individuals in the school. While I do have many students that pursue a career in the food industry, my program isn't about training chef’s but rather connecting kids to real food. I have students that have abandoned nutritionally void diets, adopted a healthy lifestyle and have become healthy and fit. One of our greatest successes is getting kids to graduate through food. While some students can't focus in other classes, they have no problem using their hands to busily prepare meals for the Avocado. We take advantage of this love of food to keep them focused and attending classes. (One of those students actually met Jamie and the Fifteen gang while doing a work study at Dario Cecchini's incredible butcher shop in Panzano, Italy.)

Have other colleges and schools taken your lead and set up their own café’s?
The move to healthy schools is building steam. I have a steady stream of teachers and school administrators through my classroom/cafe to see how it works and find out what they can do in their school districts. There are two schools that I know of that have started Screaming Avocado style cafes, and Canada's largest school district is setting up a pilot Screaming Avocado this year to build on in the future. It's a great honour to see this idea growing. What the Screaming Avocado has proven is that students will choose healthy food (200 students at my school buy their meals from the Avocado every day) and that you can turn a profit using fresh, seasonal and local products.

What is the state of School Dinners in Canada?

For the most part, the food is crap. The Canadian government doesn't financially support school lunch programs. Schools that offer an alternative to a packed lunch from home do so, for the most part, through outside caterers, who are profit driven and who have few standards to follow. So our kids have access to sugar-laden, deepfried fare from when they enter the school in the early morning until they leave. Most schools have vending machines that sell candy bars, chips and soda to students to fundraise for school sports teams. This is crazy! While we support the few elite athletes for school pride, we basically encourage the majority of the population to get fat. There are a few areas of Canada where the local governments have stepped forward and put controls in place on what can be sold in schools, but not enough.

I read that you are also now working with the students on a kitchen garden at the college. How is this going?

With the support of some community farmers we have built a 280 square meter organic garden in the courtyard of the school. It's amazing to watch a kid walk down the hall and return with a basket full of fresh vegetables to prepare a special for the Screaming Avocado. We also use the space to educate elementary students on the idea of seed to table. They are thrilled to pull a real carrot out of the ground. In addition to this we have a donated six-acre plot of land where we are presently growing Canadian heritage red fife wheat. We'll use some of the yield in the Screaming Avocado Cafe and the rest we will sell to local bakeries and restaurants. The proceeds from the sale will support an elementary school project called Mud to Mouth that will supply a plot of land for each school in town. With the help of retired farmers, and backyard gardeners, we hope to connect young students to food from 'mud to mouth' and learn responsible stewardship for the land.

If someone could wave a magic wand to grant you 3 wishes for the great work that you are doing at the college what would those 3 wishes be?
1. Endless resources to feed students that turn up to school hungry and/or malnourished. Food is a right, not a privilege.

2. A food-based exchange between the youth Jamie works with and my students.

3.. The ability to travel with my students on a whim, when the moment calls for it. To be able to deal with a racial slur from a student by immersing them in the targeted country/culture would be an incredibly powerful and life altering experience. Food is the best medium for learning.

For more information on The Screaming Avacado