In the kitchen of La Honda Elementary School last week, a group of five apron-clad fifth-grade girls received their assignment: Make enough burritos and salsa for the school lunch in 45 minutes.
Yes, the school is small, and half of students bring their lunch from home. But they still need to prepare food for 50 kids with time to read the recipe, go over instructions and clean up afterward.
“We’re counting on you, or there won’t be lunch,” said food lab and garden instructor Julie Swank.
There is pressure in La Honda Elementary’s food lab program, but these students can take the heat of the kitchen.
While the food lab program is not new to the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District — it started as a pilot in 2011 — a $10,000 grant from the Center for Ecoliteracy has allowed instructors to expand to the district’s elementary schools this year. Now, fourth- and fifth-graders at Pescadero Elementary and La Honda Elementary fifth-graders have weekly food lab instruction.
“I’ve wanted to do this for years … we’re really excited,” Swank said.
Modeled after a program at Pacific Elementary School in Davenport, food lab allows students to learn how to make a recipe using provided ingredients that will then be served to fellow classmates as a district meal. Along the way, they pick up nutritional facts about the food they’re making and are prepped with proper cleanliness and knife-handling techniques.
La Honda Elementary’s 25 fifth-graders rotate into food lab five or six at a time, meaning they participate once a month or so. The day before they cook, Swank takes the students into the school’s garden to harvest plants they’ll need as part of the meal.
“It makes it realistic,” Swank said. “So much of what we do in school is practice and not real-life application. It’s not so much nervous pressure (that the students feel); it’s serious pressure. They have to do fractions or the whole school won’t have the right burritos.”
While students do take food lab seriously, working with Swank to clarify the recipe and talk about its nutritional value, it’s doesn’t quite match the environment of a reality TV show kitchen or a busy metropolitan bistro. In fact, one of the students began poking fun at the demanding head chef personalities she has seen on television, gruffly pretending to yell at her classmates to hurry up.
Mckenzie Majors and Jazmine Nergete, two of the fifth-graders in food lab last week, made clear their excitement from the get-go. Upon being assigned to make salsa to accompany the burritos, the girls jumped up and down and squealed.
“It’s really fun,” Majors said. “Grown-ups aren’t the only ones that get to cook. We get to cook for the whole school and we’re really proud.”
“I feel really excited giving food I made to everyone else,” Nergete added.
Swank says that besides having fun learning how to cook, she hopes her students develop a “larger sense of food literacy.”
“I get frustrated with the federal guidelines; they don’t treat it like food,” Swank said. “This is something tasty and delicious they can eat instead of calculations of calories.”