“I have worms in my stomach,” Kevin Fonzo, owner and executive chef of farm-to-table K Restaurant & Wine Bar in Orlando, Florida, recalls a fifth grader telling him before chef Emeril Lagasse came to visit the student’s school in September.
“Do you mean butterflies?” Fonzo asked, laughing. Lagasse’s visit to Orlando Junior Academy (OJA) and its Edible Schoolyard capped off five years of hard work that Fonzo put into the school, transforming its cafeteria program, helping OJA establish an Edible Schoolyard garden, and teaching cooking and healthful eating classes.
Fonzo’s volunteer work with OJA, a private Seventh-day Adventist school for pre-K through 8th grade, began innocently enough. Students from the school regularly visited the expansive vegetable and herb garden Fonzo grows behind K Restaurant. One of the OJA parents, who is also the school’s gardener, let Fonzo know that the manager of the school’s cafeteria program was retiring.
“He asked if I knew anyone who would be willing to take over the program, and I thought, ‘I have some free time’. Back then, the lunch program was really small. Only around 35 kids a day got lunch,” Fonzo says. He developed a “killer menu,” designed to bring upscale, chef-quality dining to the school. “However, I made the menu unknowing that it was a vegetarian school. Then, I had to be really creative and make a menu with no meat or fish,” Fonzo says.
Once the new menu was implemented, students’ demand for the healthy, tasty food outpaced Fonzo’s time. “All the kids wanted to eat lunch, so we hired people to help us out,” Fonzo says.
Following a visit to Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California, OJA administrators, including the school’s principal, decided to start their own. Fonzo helped out with the garden, taking on another assignment as well—teaching weekly cooking classes to the students.
With the help of a fellow teacher, Fonzo developed a curriculum for OJA fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, designed to instruct the students on culinary skills and the importance of eating healthfully, while incorporating subjects like math and history.
Students have learned to make their own pasta and peanut butter. They have learned about the ancient spice route from China to Europe, and how that influenced the spices used today. Math comes into play when they divide a recipe in half or multiply the number of servings.
The importance of eating locally grown and locally raised foods throughout the year is also stressed. “We are trying to give them enough information so when they leave the school, they make the best decisions they can make,” Fonzo says. For example, students visit the local Waterkist Farms and taste fresh tomatoes. “We explain how this tomato is different from most tomatoes in the grocery store that were picked when they were green, and were gassed to ripen,” Fonzo says.
The school gives students seeds, so they can plant their own gardens. Students are also taught how to read the back of food and beverage labels. “In one recent lesson, we compared the amount of sugar in beverages such as Monster, Gatorade, and sodas. We put a bag of sugar beside the drinks and students measured out how much sugar is in each can. They were blown away by the amount of sugar [in the drinks],” Fonzo says.
OJA students also learn other valuable life skills. Within each cooking class, they prepare a recipe, clean and set their own table, and make their own centerpiece. When everyone sits down to eat, the teachers explain that “this is the time you communicate with your parents,” Fonzo says.
Lessons learned in the classroom are starting to pay off at home. “Parents say, ‘I can’t get my kids out of the kitchen now’ and ‘when we go to the grocery store, they are telling us what to buy,’” Fonzo says.
Lagasse visited OJA and K Restaurant to feature the Edible Schoolyard in his Cooking channel show, Emeril’s Florida. The Emeril Lagasse Foundation has long been a supporter of the NOLA Edible Schoolyard Project in New Orleans.
Next up for OJA and Fonzo is funding an expansion of the Edible Schoolyard Project. Florida Hospital, one of the school’s financial backers, bought two plots of land next to the school. A “community give-back garden” has been established on one plot, and the other plot will be the home of a new commercial kitchen. “Currently, I teach in a science classroom, where we cook on butane burners. We don’t have a kitchen,” Fonzo says.
When the kitchen is not in use by the school, it will be rented out to organizations for cooking classes, events, and preparation by food trucks.
For his part, Fonzo plans to raise additional funds for the Orlando Edible Schoolyard Project and continue teaching—still for free. “The most important reason why I do this is because I believe in it and I enjoy it,” Fonzo says.
By Christine Blank