Hospitality/culinary students bring the farm closer to the table with recipe development


By Cynthia Price

Farm to table is a trendy concept, but one that has a firm foundation in truths about the better nutrition, environmental soundness, community-building, and just plain better taste of buying local.

There are a lot of logistical hurdles to making that a reality in schools, but students in hospitality and tourism at the Muskegon Area Career Tech Center (MACTC) are taking steps to address a big one.

Students of Chef Instructor Elissa Penczar have been developing their own recipes based on healthy fruits, vegetables and other ingredients, and working with younger students to entice them to try new foods. 

To bring the program into effect, Penczar is partnering with the Food Service Director of Montague and Whitehall, Dan Gorman. A highly successful proponent of Farm to School, Gorman has worked with his school districts to grow their own ingredients, among other projects. “Dan was looking for ways to enrich what he was doing in Farm to School, and I was looking for ways to give my students real-world experiences,” Penczar says.

Gorman’s program is called the Real Food SEED (Student Engagement Every Day) project’ its coordinator is Lynn DeVlieg. It is “designed to provide students with authentic learning opportunities connecting them to real food through sensory experiences.  Our programs in the school cafeteria, classroom, school garden, and local farming community engage students in learning about growing food, eating seasonally and mindfully, and preparing and enjoying meals together.  Our goal is to provide all students with the knowledge and skills to make conscious, educated food choices that will nourish them for a lifetime of health.”

An additional benefit or the Real Food SEED project is that making the food strengthens the culinary skills of school district kitchen staff. And ­Penczar notes that her students benefit in a variety of ways other than learning how to create delicious recipes – though they certainly have done that. (Winter Squash, Apple and Ginger Soup, Kayne’s Michigan Berry Lemonade.and Desiree’s Scalloped Potatoes are just three.)

“They learn about how to do research, and math skills in scaling up recipes they like. When they work with the kitchen staff on the days when we serve to the kids, my students are in charge – I’m often not even there – so they learn management skills. And they also expand on their knowledge about food safety as the things they make are transferred to other schools.” Penczar says. They have also learned about advocating for their beliefs when politicians have come to visit the wonderful program.

She adds that when they first started actually giving the new foods to the Whitehall and Montague students, there was some reluctance, but now the kids look forward to it.

That was echoed by MACTC student John Sharpe. “I like finding recipes and doing research, but the best is all the kids enjoying foods, smiling, wanting all the stickers. Getting them into food is very intriguing,” says Sharpe, who wants to be a chef and has applied to Baker’s culinary program.

For student Marley Horta, who wants to be a radio broadcaster, the joy is in making new friends. And for Kain Rosales, author of Kain’s Beet Slaw (yum), “It’s really fun to learn how food reacts to different types of spices and other ingredients.” Rosales said he wants to start out as a cook, because “I’m not very good at giving orders, more at receiving them.”

Penczar’s students come up with and produce a wide variety of recipes centered on a certain ingredient, cabbage for example, which are narrowed down by a taste testing  featuring Gorman, DeVlieg and many others. The Real Food SEED program has dietary interns who speak to the MACTC students.

They source ingredients as locally as possible, using Stu Scholl Farms in Montague, for example. and work with the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University’s Cultivate program, which used to be part of the Michigan Department of Agriculture.  The MACTC students are then integral in offering the foods on a voluntary basis to the Montague and Whitehall students. The follow up with a survey asking the K-12 students how they liked the recipe.

Says?Penczar, who had more than sixteen years working as a chef before she started teaching, “It’s been great to see it go so well. Being asked to speak at conferences, including the national Farm to Cafeteria, was rewarding for both me and the students.”


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