The smell of tacos wafted down the hall at Jordan Middle School Tuesday, beckoning visitors to the culinary arts lab where students busied themselves at their cooking stations.
But instead of reaching into plastic packaging, or even the refrigerator, for ingredients, the young chefs instead used fresh produce picked directly from a newly installed garden just outside the back door.
“It is really, really important,” longtime culinary arts teacher Doreen Wydra said of teaching kids to cook fresh food. “This is a skill that they will learn and use all their life.”
Wydra began dreaming of an on-campus garden several years ago after seeing one at another school. She was awarded a small grant that enabled her to buy fencing, equipment and a small storage shed.
But it wasn’t until she earned a second, $4,000 grant through Lowe’s Toolbox for Education program in January that she started digging out a patch directly behind her culinary arts lab.
“I had kids come in after school and help me weed it, I had parents come over,” Wydra said. “My parents were here visiting me, they came and helped.”
The result was a modest 300-square-foot patch with raised beds, now blooming with lettuce, spinach, herbs, zucchini and strawberries. The garden is already serving to enhance the program, enhancing students’ understanding of food production and consumption.
“She spends a lot of time here after school and on the weekends,” Assistant Principal Lily Torres said of Wydra. “She promotes a lot of health. It is great for the kids.”
The current students are the first to cook using produce pulled directly from the garden, Wydra said. Some parents mistakenly assume that their children will spend the class cooking from a box or a can, she said. Instead, all of it is done from scratch, and much of it is easily recreated at home.
“I make them do homework,” Wydra said. “I make them cook at home, which makes the parents nuts, but yet in the end they love it, because the kids have gotten the fundamentals and they can help mom in the kitchen.”
Still, the best part of cooking comes when the burners and ovens have been turned off, students said.
“[It’s] eating the food,” said 12-year-old Peyton Dang.