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February 27, 2021

PVUSD to build celebrity-inspired teaching kitchen

Farm-to-fork program will be fourth in U.S.

WATSONVILLE—The Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees on Feb. 10 approved a project at Starlight Elementary School that will include an industrial-level kitchen and a large garden, which school officials hope will teach students how to grow, prepare and cook their own food. 

The Emeril Lagasse Culinary Garden and Teaching Kitchen, a project founded by the celebrity chef of the same name, was also created to teach life skills and, possibly, launch the careers of aspiring chefs.

The kitchen will be one of just four in the nation.

PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said the idea for the project came in part from discussions with student groups, who told her that they want their lessons to be relevant to their lives.

“We really are focusing on the whole child,” Rodriguez said. “Something that has been important to this board and important to me and the community is really helping our students to find relevance and importance in what they are learning.”

The trustees last year approved accepting a $500,000 grant from the Emeril Lagasse Foundation to help fund the project, which is estimated at $2 million. The district will use developer fees to pay another $500,000 of the remaining cost. 

For the remainder—and to keep the cost away from the general fund—the district will turn to the community for donations. One donor has already given $150,000, Rodriguez said.

As part of those efforts, the trustees approved paying two consultants—one for $10,000 and one for $20,000—which will help with fundraising.

Rodriguez said that “a cadre of other philanthropists” have expressed interest in the project.

Emeril Lagasse Foundation President Brian Kish said the hands-on experiences will be a chance to break away from classroom learning.

“…Emeril’s Culinary Garden & Teaching Kitchen paves the way for children from all walks of life to be healthier, to appreciate food and its role in culture, and to serve as role models for healthy eating within their families and communities,” he said. 

Kish said that the project aims to teach students about the source of their food and about nutrition and develop life skills such as culinary knowledge.

The project will include a modular unit with an “industrial-grade” kitchen, along with an expanded garden where students will grow and harvest the food they cook. 

It will also include expanded staff parking.

In addition to the curriculum from the foundation, the program will also draw lessons from Life Lab—a program created at UC Santa Cruz and already used in PVUSD—that teaches students about healthy eating through garden-based education. Students will engage in 30 hours of instruction annually that will run the gamut from science to language to health and wellness.

“A lot of times students don’t even know the possibilities of what is out there for them,” Rodriguez said. 

District officials are also considering ways to make the kitchen a “community hub,” where groups such as the Teen Kitchen Project could use it, along with older students to mentor younger ones.

The district could also rent the facility, Rodriguez said. 

“We want this to be a community use kitchen and a gathering place for our community,” Rodriguez said.

Trustee Jennifer Schacher said she didn’t mind the expense of the kitchen.

“The benefits really outweigh the costs with this program,” she said. “This is what’s best for the children in our community. This is what our community needs.”

Trustee Jennifer Holm agreed. 

“We do so much work that serves the body and mind of our students, and this really gets to the soul,” she said.

It is not clear when construction will begin. In related action, the trustees approved a construction plan to be completed by AEDIS Architects of San Jose. The estimated $170,653 for construction plans will be covered by the grant.

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