Migrating the Food Lab Program: From Davenport to Pescadero

A highly evolved school lunch program where students are the cooks finds opportunities for innovation in a new setting.

Migrating the Food Lab Program: From Davenport to Pescadero

"What role does Food Lab play in your program?" a visitor asks La Honda (California) Elementary School principal Kristen Lindstrom.

"My first thought is, what part does it not play?" laughs Lindstrom. "It touches on so many of our academic standards, because it can integrate so many things, especially at elementary sites, where you already have an existing garden, and you're already doing science as well as math, reading, and writing. We're able to carry that over to one more level."

Students get a well-rounded perspective, she says, from working with the soil, planting the seed, tending and harvesting it, and making meals — not just for themselves, but for the whole district. "It's really a big deal."

Food Lab — which involves students in all phases of school meals program, from planning and planting to cooking and serving — was launched in 1984 at Pacific Elementary School in Davenport, a small town 10 miles north of Santa Cruz on the California coast. Since March of 2011, an adaptation of the program has been piloted in the larger La Honda–Pescadero Unified School District (LHPUSD) 25 miles further up the coast, supported in part by a California Food for California Kids™ Center for Ecoliteracy grant underwritten by the TomKat Charitable Trust. 

Every LHPUSD sixth-grader participates once every four weeks in Food Lab — a whirlwind 55 minutes during which six to eight students prepare the following morning's breakfast for the three of the four LHPUSD schools (and an afternoon snack for the fourth), while learning about cooking, nutrition, food safety, quality control, composting, math, science, history, and culture. Menus connect to social studies themes: aish (Egyptian pocket bread) during the study of ancient Egypt, samosas while studying India, Greek Easter bread paired with the study of Greece. Whenever appropriate, meals incorporate ingredients grown in the school garden.

On a day fried rice is the main menu item, instructor Emelia Miguel combines a geography lesson about China with a discussion about rice's nutritional value and its role in different cultures. Then students apply math lessons to calculate the portions needed to scale up family-sized recipes in order to serve 150 breakfasts the following day.

Above: Emelia Miguel and students in Pescadero.

Miguel helps a group of students become comfortable (and careful) with large, sharp knives and demonstrates how different strokes are employed to slice carrots, chop broccoli, dice zucchini, and mince garlic. As students become more proficient with the knives, she has them teach their fellows how it's done. Other students scramble dozens of eggs, following a lesson about salmonella and precautions to take against the dangers of cross-contamination. Students cook the vegetables, add rice, stir in the eggs, and heat the mixture, testing and adjusting soy sauce and sesame oil until the taste is right. Then everyone samples their creation, perhaps a bit more appreciative of the effort required to make a good meal.

The Food Lab program offers students knowledge and skills, and something else as well: the pride that comes with accomplishment. Says Kristen Lindstrom, "I see that little gleam in their eyes when the garden teacher brings in the box of greens and they say, 'Oh, yeah, we planted that.' I'll ask, 'Which group made this? This tastes wonderful.' 'Oh, that was my group.'"

"Some of our kids that are struggling academically are excelling at the food program," says Lindstrom. "They're some of our best cooks. This is great for those kids and for their families to know that 'he's having a tough time in math class, but you come and watch him in Food Lab, and he's a star.' The parents are thankful that their kids are learning some practical skills."

Food Lab: in the beginning in Davenport

Faith in children's capacity to accomplish work in which they can take pride has been part of Food Lab since Stephanie Raugust began the program in Davenport in 1984. When her daughter started school at Pacific Elementary the previous year, Raugust discovered that the school's lunch was low-quality, processed food delivered in thermal bags from a central kitchen in Santa Cruz.

Above: Stephanie Raugust and students in the Davenport kitchen.

Having run her family's restaurant, she says, "I knew I could make good food. But the bigger thing was my belief that a child could do it, so why not let them do it? We want our children to do what they're capable of doing."

So she proposed becoming, in effect, the food service department for the one-school district. She christened the program Food Lab, inspired by Life Lab, a successful school garden program that had originated in Santa Cruz five years earlier and was a valued part of the Pacific School curriculum. (The garden still exists, and was recently renovated, adding production beds to provide produce for the Food Lab kitchen).

As the size of the school doubled, to about 120, Raugust designed a smooth-running system, guided by six principles:

  • Children learn best by doing.
  • Children need real and meaningful work to develop self-esteem.
  • Children need a time frame for beginning and finishing tasks.
  • Children working together learn interdependence.
  • Problem solving can be creative and joyful.
  • Understanding our food system helps students to value sustainability throughout our lives.

All the Davenport fifth- and sixth-graders participate in Food Lab for 70 minutes one day a week. Each day, a team of five to eight students prepares and serves lunch for the entire school, including staff and parents who are on campus.

And we're not talking here about chicken nuggets and tater tots. These are fresh, nutritious, high quality — and delicious — meals that would not be out of place in a well-managed restaurant. On one day, 10- and 11-year-olds, cooking from scratch in a small, narrow kitchen, may produce roasted chicken, lentil soup, barley rolls, multi-grain pesto pasta, steamed vegetables, garden salad, and seasonal fruit. On another day, lunch could be California rolls, sushi, miso soup, edamame, and oranges. And so on, day after day.

Lunches are lovingly served, family style, in a sunny, enclosed porch on tables set with tablecloths, flowers, hand-made personal napkins rings, and real knives, forks, and plates. The lunchroom is lively but not raucous, as students and adults share conversation, practice social skills, and appreciate the value of an eating experience that is far more than a pit stop for refueling.  

The Food Lab students are responsible for an essential part of the school day. Because the rest of the school depends on them for lunch, they need to work together efficiently to prepare and serve lunch on schedule. They take turns fulfilling one of four roles that correspond to positions in a professional kitchen: manager, prep chef, cook, and baker. They calculate portions and adjust recipes to meet the lunch count for the day, measure and mix ingredients, assemble and prepare fruits and vegetables, determine an oven schedule, prepare the main course, bake bread, toss salads, make desserts, set the tables, sweep the floors — all while maintaining an air of purposeful calm, helping each other, and giving every indication of enjoying themselves.

They also prepare snacks for the preschool program, which is a center for food education of its own, with raised-bed gardens from which children are encouraged to nibble between weekly "harvests" for their common meals. The Food Lab students' daily ritual of bringing in the preschool snack is a time for taking pride in what they have created and an opportunity for the older students to model the pleasure of sharing a meal.

By year's end, students are proficient enough to collaborate on planning and preparing a complex culminating feast, which the fifth-graders serve to the sixth-graders and the staff. A recent feast celebrated world cultures with Thai spring rolls, Middle Eastern greens with a mint orange sauce, Middle Eastern flat bread, Chinese egg drop soup, classic Roman ravioli, oven-roasted cauliflower with a drizzle of Béchamel sauce, and Grecian gelato with strawberries and Roman biscotti.

"I just see so many wonderful outcomes."

Teachers, administrators, parents, and outside observers praise the program.

Hunter College professor Janet Poppendieck, who visited school lunch programs across the country while researching her 2010 book Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, calls Food Lab "The most complete integration of course-based food preparation and school food I've seen."

Says Davenport principal Eric Bitter, "I just see so many wonderful outcomes that kids pull out of Food Lab. Those administrators who do not recognize that kids can be responsible around food preparation have not seen it in action like I have. I've seen many small hands handling very sharp objects and doing a wonderful job. I see something that doesn't happen at a desk. I see kids relying on each other and working together."

"As we pull things out of our own garden and they prepare it for other kids," he says, "they take real ownership, and I think that pride goes to not wanting to waste food. My wife's a principal at a middle school and she tells me all the time that she'll watch pizza go from cellophane right into the trash. I think there's more buy-in from kids who prepare their own food. I think they understand the nutritional value of the fresh produce that we bring to the table.

"I'm just overwhelmed by what we can accomplish with such a small staff and the teamwork that goes on. It's fantastic, really."


Adds Gwyan Rhabyt, a parent who is president of the Pacific Elementary School District board. "My kids definitely have a better, healthier relationship with food because of this. If they're preparing their own lunch, they'll feel that it's wrong to prepare that lunch without some vegetables in it. My daughter is now in middle school, and I hear her critiquing the school lunch program at her new school. There is a set of food- and health-related values that they've taken with them that I think is great."

Fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Ben Preston notes that Food Lab is one part of a greater approach the school is taking, integrating emotional, physical, and mental health into the whole curriculum. He also appreciates its reinforcement of skills and knowledge that are part of the mandated curriculum. "Ben will ask me for an actual problem that I need an answer for," says Raugust. "Then he'll take it into the classroom and they'll work it out." She and Preston review core curricular concepts, which she'll then incorporate into Food Lab. So, for instance, when students are studying heat in science, she'll ask them to identify and explain the various types of heat when they encounter them while cooking.

The program has reinforced relationships with the Davenport community. About 70 percent of the produce purchased for Food Lab is grown on local farms. Other businesses such as the Davenport Bakery and the Davenport Roadhouse support Food Lab. Local chefs spend time in the kitchen. Even the kitchen scraps are saved for Big Boy, a local farmer's pig.

Food Lab has paid other dividends, helping to maintain enrollment in the face of changing regional demographics. Half of Pacific Elementary's students now come from outside the district. According to Noel Bock, the district's business manager, Food Lab is "a huge p.r. piece." Parents drive up from Santa Cruz, she says, and love that children are getting fresh, often organic, locally grown produce and that they are involved in raising and cooking their own food.

Food Lab migrates to La Honda-Pescadero

School districts regularly contact Food Lab about starting something similar, but hesitate after discovering the level of commitment needed to make the program a success. The La Honda–Pescadero Unified School District is the first district to pilot its own version of Food Lab. This effort  is a philanthropic initiative of TomKat Ranch, which raises grass-feed beef in a sustainable operation less than a mile from the Pescadero campuses. Founders Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor have demonstrated a deep commitment to health, education, and care for the environment, and an ongoing involvement in bettering their community.

In 2007, the district undertook a series of meetings around its new wellness policy and the food program. It invited farmers and local community members, including representatives of TomKat Ranch, to meet with district administrative staff, teachers, and parents.

"We recognized that kids in this rich agricultural belt were eating some of the worst food," says TomKat president Kat Taylor. "Small districts often don't have the personnel or resources to make the necessary changes in their operations. It's like trying to change the tires while the car is running 60 miles an hour. We thought that perhaps we could step in and help the district make a one-time switch to a new system that they could then manage on their own."

The TomKat Ranch Education Foundation donated the consulting services of a company that manages food service for private schools. One of the needs that Britt Galler and Adam Kesselman identified was staff to oversee a transition from heat-and-serve, corn dogs, and frozen pizza to cooking with fresh, healthy ingredients. Taylor loaned a member of her staff, certified nutrition educator Kathy Webster, to serve as a part-time "food visioneer" for the district. Webster has worked closely with food service director Regina Silveira to create menus, identify local sources, order food, coordinate relationships with local organic farmers to donate produce, and incorporate the Harvest of the Month Program into the curriculum.


The new cooking-from-scratch program, remembers Superintendent Amy Wooliever,  "was a big adjustment. Salads every day, carrots, types of food that students weren't getting. It took a couple of years, and some tweaks to the menus, but now the middle schoolers and high schoolers just devour the food."

Kathy Webster had become friends with Stephanie Raugust, and hoped to initiate something like Food Lab in Pescadero. Figuring that seeing the program in action would be the most effective way to get people excited about it, she arranged for Kat Taylor, TomKat Charitable Trust executive director Brooks Shumway, and Center for Ecoliteracy executive director Zenobia Barlow to visit Pacific Elementary and observe Food Lab.

Besides the quality of the food, says Barlow, "I was impressed by the many levels at which Stephanie was operating in a tiny slice of a kitchen. She was working in a gentle way with fifth- and sixth-graders surrounded by knives, openers, and hot stoves. She was teaching math in a way that engaged students – even as they were preparing a meal against a strict schedule. Students were doing real work in a warm, friendly atmosphere. I experienced a vibrant sense of community."

Meanwhile, Stephanie Raugust, Emelia Miguel, and a team from Davenport, along with Superintendent Amy Wooliever from La Honda-Pescadero, were all enrolled in a yearlong Leadership Academy program at the Center for Ecoliteracy. They used their time together in part to explore what makes Food Lab work, and how a program might "migrate" to a new setting such as La Honda-Pescadero.

There is no one right way to do a program like Food Lab; every program must be designed to fit its circumstances. The pilot in La Honda-Pescadero involves creative responses to both constraints and opportunities.

Though LHPUSD already had a food service, it lacked the certification to permit students to work in the district kitchen. So Wooliever suggested that they look at the unused kitchen in a former home economics classroom at Pescadero High School. Though the room needed lots of work, recalls Emelia Miguel, she thought, "That's what it was built for. Let's bring it back." She and Raugust spent hours scrubbing it down and creating a space Food Lab could call its own.

The most feasible time in the La Honda-Pescadero class schedule for Food Lab is at the end of the day. By using that time to prepare the next day's breakfast, the program offers a benefit to the food service, while providing students with more diverse breakfast offerings than they would otherwise get.

The time available within the class schedule is not always enough to finish cooking and cleanup, requiring Miguel to put in her own time. Students from the previous year's program, now middle schoolers on the adjacent campus, will come by at the end of the day, roll up their sleeves, and help when they can. Even high school students who were never part of Food Lab catch the aromas of fresh food, stop by, and pitch in.

The garden and Food Lab programs appeal to students with diverse skills and learning styles. Young people who have difficulty sitting still through a long class period thrive in the outdoors and garden, says La Honda sixth-grade teacher Kristina Kern. Lindstrom, who is also special education director for the district, was looking for additional opportunities for the district's special education class at Pescadero High School. She arranged for Emelia Miguel to work with the special needs students each week in the hour before the sixth-graders arrive for Food Lab. They help prepare ingredients for some of the more complex dishes, practice the same skills as the sixth-graders and cook the same dishes, while receiving more individualized attention. Some of the special needs students then assist the sixth-graders.

Food Lab is helping the district address one challenge created by geography, history, and demographics. The district serves two geographically close but culturally different communities. Pescadero is largely a farming and ranching community. The 2010 census identified 62 percent of its residents as Hispanic or Latino. Many residents work in floriculture or on local ranches. Says Wooliever, "There's not a lot of housing. If they can move on, they'll move out to a different community," because there isn't as much place for middle-class Latino families. La Honda, a half-hour away in the Santa Cruz Mountains, is 87-percent white. During the 1960s, many people knew it primarily as the home base for writer Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Its residents are more mobile, likely to work in the trades, or to travel "over the hill" to Silicon Valley.

La Honda and Pescadero each has an elementary school; they share a single middle school and high school. Bridging the cultures and overcoming what one teacher describes as an "us versus them feeling" is an ongoing concern. One response was the creation in 2010–2011 of a "Sixth Grade Academy" which enrolls all the sixth-graders from both elementary schools. Food Lab, which is part of the Sixth Grade Academy program, fits nicely into this plan. Pescadero sixth-graders go to the La Honda campus for academic classes and garden programs. The scheme reverses as everyone is bused down the hill to Pescadero for Food Lab and other activities. Sharing tasks in the kitchen helps bring the students together. "It's real life work," says Kristen Lindstrom. "They definitely have to work as a team to accomplish the goal."

A program like this, according to TomKat Ranch Education Foundation senior programs officer Kathy Webster, makes a large difference in the community. "There's a real issue with food, and it's not just food insecurities. It's kids choosing the wrong kinds of food. I don't think a lot of these kids go shopping or understand where their food comes from, nor do they help or appreciate how the food got there. I think that is incredibly important."

The work in Pescadero is "highly successful," concludes Kat Taylor. "Students are a lot more interested in healthy eating. New curricular elements are being introduced and educational goals met through experiential education, all while operating within a spare budget." Her dreams for the future extend well beyond her local community. "In the last generation and a half, we've lost people who know their way around a kitchen. Kids need to know where their food comes from. Helping a new generation learn to eat fresh, healthy food will support a more sustainable food system. I hope that this program will go viral within the state of California, and that California kids will be eating more California food. It's going to be good for agriculture, the economy, and the environment."

Photos: James Tyler/Center for Ecoliteracy