Leaders from around the Pajaro Valley gather at Starlight Elementary Nov. 3 at the future site of the Culinary Garden & teaching Kitchen, expected to open in Fall 2022. —Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaornian

Last February, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees approved bringing the Emeril Lagasse Culinary Garden and Teaching Kitchen project to Starlight Elementary School, aiming to teach local students how to grow, prepare and cook their own food. 

The project, founded by the celebrity chef of the same name, is at only four other schools in the nation, mainly in Southern states. But after the Emeril Lagasse Foundation (ELF) began working with Santa Cruz County nonprofit Life Lab to build the project’s curriculum, things changed. 

“We looked at the [PVUSD] schools, and saw that the need was there,” said Brian Kish, president of ELF. “Many of the families are farmworkers. What they are doing for society … that is so important to our country. They pick fresh produce, but they’re not eating it. This is the kind of situation we want to address. Life Lab was already doing great work, but together we had the opportunity to have an even greater impact.”

Don Burgett, co-executive director of Life Lab, said that the project will add to the continued expansion of their own farm-to-fork programs at local schools, which grew to five this year. It will include an extended school garden where students learn how to grow and harvest food, plus an industrial-grade kitchen to prepare and cook meals. 

Burgett credited PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez, Starlight Principal Jaclynne Medina and grant writers for putting together a proposal for ELF.

“They did some incredible work … to win that proposal,” Burgett said. “We are happy and honored that this project will be coming here.”

Co-executive director Judit Camacho praised the project team for being “very engaged” in the process.

“We are excited to continue to engage and inspire young people to think about science, health … and how we can all participate in an equitable food system,” she said. “We’re seeing this local and national work, how it’s connecting to a much larger movement. School gardens are important. They are a way to make education more equitable for students who learn in different ways.”

On Nov. 3, community leaders gathered at Starlight for an information session and tour of the grounds that will be home to the new project. Rodriguez said the event was one of many that the district will hold in the lead-up to the project being completed in Fall 2022.

Michelle Rodriguez, Superintendent of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (left), welcomes people for a tour of the proposed campus garden and culinary kitchen. —Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

“It’s an opportunity to have influential community members come and understand what we are doing,” she said. “What I want is for them to see the new PVUSD … to become ambassadors for the work we are doing. And to see this project as an example … it will benefit not only Starlight students but our 11,000 elementary students in the district.”

PVUSD and Life Lab also hope that the facility will become a hub of activity in the community.

“There are so many opportunities this will provide,” Burgett said. “Our vision is that once Starlight settles in, there’ll be an opportunity to invite the Teen Kitchen Project, Second Harvest or FoodWhat?! … We are excited about those possibilities.”

Added Kish: “This will be a very special hub. A top place in the country for this type of garden and culinary program. We have a chance to make a difference.”

The project is estimated at $2 million, with the first ELF grant of $500,000 approved last year. PVUSD will use developer fees to pay another $500,000. The district will rely on donors and fundraising for the rest.

Community Health Trust of Pajaro Valley has awarded the project $150,000, which executive director DeAndre James said is the largest lump sum donation the organization has ever given. 

“This kind of project is what we stand for,” James said. “Bringing health and wellness to our community … addressing food insecurity, general education around food—it’s in our mission.”

James said the organization will work with the project long-term, bringing in dietitians, cooking demonstrations and other resources. He urged the community to support the project if possible.

“Any support in any dollar amount helps,” he said. “$5, $10, $15—it all helps to make these things happen.”

Rodriguez said that the project not only addresses educational equity, but introduces students to new career pathways. 

“It helps kids see there’s more than one way to think,” she said. “I think the gardens help build those essential skills. We used to only say ‘college-ready,’ but now we’re saying ‘college, career and life-ready.’”

To make a tax-free donation to the project contact Andrea Willy at [email protected] or 831-786-2323, or send a check made out to “PVUSD: CGTK at Starlight Elementary” to 294 Green Valley Rd.

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Reporter Johanna Miller grew up in Watsonville, attending local public schools and Cabrillo College before transferring to Pacific University Oregon to study Literature. She covers arts and culture, business, nonprofits and agriculture.


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