At Pacific Elementary School, lunch is prepared daily using local produce and grass-fed chicken donated by a nearby farm. Meals combine old favorites — tacos and homemade pizza — with exotics: Filipino chicken adobo, Brazilian pumpkin stew, latkes for Hanukkah, and Nigerian jollof rice for kwanzaa.
It’s no wonder families from nearby Santa Cruz take many spots at the coastal city of Davenport’s only public school, fascinated by the food and the school’s renowned chefs: their own 10- and 11-year-old children.
For more than three decades, sons and daughters of farmhands and farm owners, along with out-of-town children, have taken turns cooking lunch for each other, their teachers and staff. This defines the school and supports it financially.
In fact, without the Food Lab, as the food program is called, there would be no school. Davenport, with a population of 368, is too small to populate a school from preschool through sixth grade. About two-thirds of the students are from the districts, primarily Santa Cruz and the mountain town of Bonny Doon.
“That sense of service to the other students in the school is important to me, but so is the skills she’s learning in the kitchen,” said Santa Cruz native Doña Bumgarner, explaining why she enrolled her daughter Stella at Pacific Elementary.
Several fifth and sixth graders take turns in the kitchen for a three-hour shift once a week, including Stella. The bustle begins at 9 a.m. in a compact kitchen wide enough for two students to pass without bumping — as long as they look around and yell, “open the oven!”
On the menu that day was pozole, a traditional Mexican pork soup garnished with fresh coriander. It was served with quesadillas, a salad and beans. Chefs Logan Franks, Moses O’Riordan and Shyon Johnson cut up vegetables, used food processors and cooked chicken while baking pumpkin bread for breakfast the next day.
They work with sharp knives under the watchful eye of Emelia Miguel, who selected the school 14 years ago for her daughter’s food lab and has been running it for eight years.
“For the first few weeks, we really just focus on safety in the kitchen,” she said. “We try not to use a lot of chopping, dicing and slicing equipment. So we teach them how to use knives.”
glitches happen. The worst accident so far was when Miguel cut his finger and needed stitches. A student mistook salt for sugar and spoiled a meal. “There’s always a plan B and a plan C,” Miguel said. Once the electricity went out in the kitchen and (the director) called the parents. Grills from home soon began to appear, and lunch was served in the parking lot.
Each year, Miguel sees the students’ confidence grow. “It’s a huge, huge task to produce all this food for 140 people and protect it and we trust them to do that. They are so empowered and comfortable that they can do these things.”
“This is not superficial work. It makes sense, it matters, and they need to be successful. We don’t eat anything else,” said Eric Gross, the combined superintendent/principal for the single-school Pacific Elementary District.
One minute, Miguel Shyon suggests what to do when dough clogs a blender; Next, she goes over how Logan calculated the ingredients for the pozole.
“I like how fresh the food is,” Logan said. “No prepackaged food with preservatives. I like working with the food. I also like skipping math.”
Miguel overhears him. “Well, you’re doing math here, right? You’re not skipping school, Logan.”
Teachers schedule students’ absences from class and make sure they make up for the time they spend in the food lab, Gross said.
Miguel welcomes the students’ ideas. Sixth grader Quinn Schromm’s proposal to make November International Food Month resulted in Greek food on Mondays (spanakopita and baked orzo), Brazilian food on Tuesdays (feijoada, black bean and pork stew), Moroccan food on Wednesdays (pumpkin tagine ), Thursdays in India (tandoori chicken tikka on Diwali, the festival of lights) and Polish Fridays (pierogis, which are stuffed dumplings, and golumpki, which are boiled stuffed cabbage rolls).
“We exposed kids and I to so many different things that I had never cooked before. That was really fun. It was a big, big challenge,” said Miguel.
And also a challenge for picky eaters and kids who eat a lot of junk food. For her, Emelia’s rule applies: “I’m like, ‘How old are you?’ “I’m 5.” “Well, you have to take five bites of your food before you get up.” And it generally works for students from 5 to 11,” said Miguel.
“In general, if we can start them in preschool and get them through sixth grade, they’re less picky,” Miguel said. “I’ve had a lot of parents come up and tell me, ‘I’m so thankful my kid is home eating his salad.'”
“Miss Emelia and the fifth and sixth years are very clever at figuring out how to not obfuscate things but edit them in a way that’s more kid-friendly,” Gross said.
Served with plates and cutlery
Students don’t queue for food. To emphasize that lunch is special, the cooking students and Jerry Adame, a 27-year-old school employee, bring meals to the lunch tables; Students eat with cutlery on plates. While in many schools students choke down their meals before break, at Pacific Elementary the kids eat tired and hungry after break and have longer time to eat than in many schools.
Miguel, an advocate for student-centered programs, believes other schools can create their own versions of Food Lab. “It’s absolutely possible,” she said.
But Bumgarner and Gross said it was difficult to duplicate one big ingredient: Miguel. Bumgarner, who works in the school library and has a glimpse of the kitchen, said: “Having my own child in my own kitchen I know it’s really difficult to keep kids engaged. Emelia gets platters of excellent food on the table every day. This is really amazing to me.”
“Not many people are cut out for the job that involves designing a menu, ordering, cooking, and supervising kids with knives, flames, and boiling water,” Gross said. “Most chefs just want to cook.”
There are also other factors: Many schools lack kitchens because for decades the state has been promoting central kitchens in a district with food deliveries to schools further away.
And there are the additional costs. Quality meals cost more, Gross said. Pacific Elementary is not a wealthy county; it receives below-average government funding per student. Before Covid, the district’s general fund subsidized Food Lab’s expenses at $20,000-$30,000 annually – $1-$2 per meal. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government has financed breakfast and lunch for all students and soon that too the state subsidizes meals for all students, and Food Lab should almost break even, Gross said.
Food Lab embodies the spirit of the school. “Most students consider it an honor to be part of the Food Lab,” said Gross. “They’re proud to say, ‘I made lunch today.'”
“We do a lot of things differently as a school and attract people who think differently or want to have a different experience,” he said.
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