It's amazing what one fed-up parent can do. That's what Stephanie Raugust was back in the early '80s, when her daughter was a student at Pacific Elementary School in Davenport, Calif.
Raugust, then a bakery owner and restaurateur, was dismayed at the standard school lunch of prefab burritos. "The students were not being offered fresh food," she says, despite the acres and acres of fruit and vegetable farms in the area along Route 1 near Santa Cruz.
So she resolved to do something about it. Taking a cue from the school's Environmental Living Program, which gives students a hands-on experience of history, Raugust proposed putting the students to work in the kitchen. "I realized there was no reason that kids couldn't cook their own lunches," she says. "Teach them, and they will do it."
And that's exactly what's been happening for 25 years now, in Raugust's Project Food Lab. Each day, a team of Pacific School's fifth and sixth graders plan and prepare a meal for up to 100 students and teachers using organic produce from the school's own gardens and local growers whenever possible. The kitchen-as-classroom concept immerses the kids in the entire life cycle of food—from planting and harvesting to planning, prepping, cooking and eating. The goal: to give students a life-long appreciation for healthy, nutritious food and the skills they need to prepare and enjoy it.
Once a week, the students rotate through one of several roles: manager, cook, baker or prep person. They exercise math concepts as they multiply recipes to feed the daily headcount, learn to manage their time as they work to meet the lunch rush and become comfortable with the kind of teamwork needed to pull off an event only slightly smaller than the average wedding reception.
The school sits down to the meal—maybe vegetable soup and corn muffins, or Vietnamese spring rolls—at properly set tables covered with red checkered tablecloths. "The place setting and environment help foster kids' respect for food," says Raugust, now the school's nutrition coordinator. The meal is punctuated by short discussions about nutrition, including quick analyses of the student-prepared dishes.
By all accounts, the program has been a success. Pacific Elementary School has been recognized by the California School Board Association and the United Way for its nutrition and wellness programs. Several students have gone on to professional careers in food service, Raugust says. And parents report being corrected by their children on their chopping and slicing techniques, and schooled on how to make the perfect scrambled egg.
"It has to be a balance between giving kids what they want and what they need," Raugust says. "It's not just about enjoyment—it's also about nutrition. I say, 'Let's make nutrition enjoyable.'"
FOOD LAB LESSONS
You may not have Stephanie Raugust at your kids' school, but you can create a mini food lab at home. Here's how.
- Let them take the lead. Give older children the responsibility for preparing a simple meal or dish for the family. Allow them to pack their own brown-bag lunches-and yours.
- Don't come to their rescue. "Let them experiment and make mistakes," Raugust says. "It's more important to learn the difference between a tablespoon and a teaspoon by tasting a mistake than to create the perfect cookie."
- Take kids on food adventures. Turn grocery store runs and farmers' market trips into hunts for new and exciting ingredients. Take your spoils home and research ways to prepare them with the help of the Internet.
- Grow something together. "Even if it is a pot of herbs in the window," Raugust says. You'll get more buy-in from kids if they're involved from the very beginning of the growing process.