It’s lunchtime at Pacific Elementary School in Davenport and the kitchen is a flurry of activity. The lower grades have finished eating already and the upper grades will be sitting down at the low blue gingham-covered tables within the hour. By that time the marine layer will likely have burned off, allowing the children to enjoy stunning views through the ocean-facing windows.
In the kitchen, one of the cooks fluffs a huge pot of brown rice with a fork, releasing warm, nutty plumes of steam. Another calls out, “Opening oven!” and checks the roasted chicken thighs for doneness, spooning over a little more of the garlic, Dijon mustard and balsamic sauce. A third stands on a stool as she deveins large leaves of romaine lettuce, expertly guiding a chef’s knife as long as her slender forearm along the tough stem and chopping it into pieces easily pierced by smaller forks.
These young chefs are fifth and sixth graders at Pacific Elementary, and this kitchen is the FoodLab, the cooking component of the nonprofit Life Lab garden classroom where students cook the lunches for all students and staff. Before graduating to the kitchen, kindergarteners through fourth graders spend an hour a week in the nearby garden learning about composting, planting, harvesting and seasonality. By being deeply involved in growing and cooking their food, the children become invested in what they eat.
Founded in 1984 by Stephanie Raugust, FoodLab is just as groundbreaking and unique today as it was 33 years ago. Unlike other schools where working in the kitchen may be an elective option, if the opportunity is presented at all, every student cooks in the FoodLab every week as part of the school’s curriculum. Four-student teams rotate the roles of prep cook, baker, cook and manager, so everyone has the opportunity to perform a variety of kitchen tasks and leadership roles. “We’re educating the whole student, not just the academic part,” explains food services director Emelia Miguel.
Ten years ago the FoodLab program influenced her and her husband’s decision to enroll their daughter in Pacific Elementary. After several years of volunteering in the kitchen, she took over the full-time position four years ago when Raugust retired.
With the help of her second-in-command, FoodLab instructor Violeta Law, Miguel manages the kitchen with a warm, assertive presence, demystifying a traditionally grown-up realm. “We start our year with a scavenger hunt because I feel like if you’re in the kitchen and you don’t know where everything is, it’s really hard to cook,” she says.
“For knife skills, we always teach them the claw,” adds Miguel, positioning her hand so that if she were to hold a knife, the blade would avoid her fingertips. “It’s interesting because they come from such different places, but we want them to end up in the same place with basic skills like how to use a knife. We don’t do anything fancy. It’s pizza. It’s hard-boiled eggs, salad, roasted chicken.”
The wholesome menu adheres to standards set by the USDA National Student Lunch Program and Miguel also incorporates family recipes from students. Today the students make Ondine’s Baked Chicken, and the sixth grader guides her teammates and Miguel on its preparation. Earlier, the team worked out how to multiply the original recipe to feed nearly 100 people.
Miguel says seeing the students empowered and knowing she can trust them in the kitchen to do such a huge job is the most rewarding result of her work. “I think that’s why a lot of other food services directors don’t do this. They don’t have the same amount of trust in their students. They think those jobs need adults, but they don’t realize that kids can do it just as well, and with more creativity and enthusiasm and more willingness to get the jobs done. It’s pretty amazing.”
FoodLab’s success is evident not just in the skills learned by the students, but also in the number of lunches sold. “We have an 82% participation rate in our lunch program, which is extremely high for a school, and we have a pretty low percentage for free and reduced price school lunch—around 37%,” explains Miguel. “Normally what you see is a high free and reduced price lunch percentage and a high participation rate, because they have a captive audience of kids who can get lunch for free. For us to have such a high participation rate with a low free and reduced lunch rate shows that parents are choosing to purchase school lunch for their kids because they know it’s a good, healthy option.”
However, because the FoodLab has chosen to use only organic produce, milk and eggs, and sustainably raised meats, and despite stringent cost-saving measures, the funding it receives as a public school from the state and federal government falls woefully short each year. To help fill the gap, it hosts an Outstanding in the Field-style farm dinner at Green Oaks Farm in Pescadero each fall. This year, it will be held on October 7. “We make most of our money in the sale of the tickets. Students and families come in and create and cook. Foodie people come in and make the menu, and we have really amazing, yummy ideas,” says Miguel.
Back in the kitchen it’s almost time for the second seating. Miguel answers a hundred eager questions from inquiring minds and tells students it’s time to begin plating. Raugust frequently visits her beloved program and today she takes a few seconds of Miguel’s time to inspect a basket of fresh fava beans—Raugust thinks shelling them would be a good task for small hands. The enticing aromas wafting from the centrally located kitchen draw hungry students and teachers, who eat together at the lunch table. Miguel explains, “It’s literally the heart of the school.”
Lily Stoicheff is an eater and writer living in Santa Cruz with a soft spot for points of historical interest and a passion for pickles that threatens to take over her fridge.
EXPLORE: To learn more about the FoodLab at Pacific Elementary School in Davenport or purchase tickets for its fundraising dinner, go to www.pacificesd.org/foodlab.html.