As fondly as I remember waiting around for the third Friday of every month, when the schools in my district would serve a hot, slimy facsimile of pizza, I think I would have clawed my way through fellow students to get to the kind of fare that is served up at Santa Fe's Monte Del Sol Charter School.
On the day I was lucky enough to eat among the lunchtime bustle of high school students at Monte Del Sol, we were served a coconut ginger curry with ground turkey, Indian-style vegetarian dal and sides of steaming rice and fresh fruit. Later in the week, kids got Udon noodle soup (vegetarian or with chicken) alongside a spinach salad with sesame soy ginger dressing.
You might think your average, sullen teen would still hold out for processed pizza straight out of a microwave, but all it would take to change your mind is the smell of the fresh food wafting out of the Monte Del Sol kitchen. Inside, students work alongside chef Andre Kempton and sous chef Danny Cohen. Not only does Monte Del Sol have skilled chefs preparing the meals and mentoring future kitchen mavericks, but the food draws heavily on the school's own 600-square-foot, heavily composted, biointensive garden.
The garden is tended to by the botany and kitchen science classes and managed by Garden Coordinator Erin O'Neill.
"At the end of the term," O'Neill says, "if kids don't know how to grow a garden, from conditioning the soil through planting, harvesting and preparing for the following season, they don't pass."
What the garden can't provide is frequently donated to the school's kitchen. Chef Kempton works with kids to plan menus based on seasonal and donated food, and he probably has fewer discipline problems than any other room full of teens in the state could present.
"They come in here, they see what we're doing and the transition from raw ingredients to the sampling of global food styles that we do here, and they want to do it; they want to be a part of it," Kempton says.
A teacher pulls aside one kid who has taken a real shine to working in the kitchen and asks about his experience. He now wants to be a chef, he tells us; cooking has become his passion. Skeptically, the teacher asks if he cooked anything at home the night before.
Hunching up his shoulders in a thick hoodie, he mumbles "yeah."
"Really?" the teacher asks, "What did you cook?"
"I made, like, spicy stuffed pork chops on a bed of risotto," answers the student.
Currently, meals cost $3.50—cheap when you compare the quality of food to the average lunch in Santa Fe, but potentially expensive for some students and parents. But the school delivers free meals to any student who would qualify for the same under an ordinary program, and it does plenty of fundraising in order to sustain the whole program. For example, benefactors paid to set up the slick, commercial-grade kitchen—a facility that is so nice, the community college holds cooking courses in it. But there's only enough money right now to serve such lunches three days a week.
On May 10, however, the school will host a Mother's Day brunch and plant sale in the hopes of raising enough money to offer its extraordinary food service five days a week.
Right now, students are busy starting seedlings so that there will be plenty of robust starter plants for people to purchase and take back to their home gardens after the event. As usual, the chefs and their small army of buddy kitchenistas will prepare an ambitious meal so that people can simultaneously treat their mothers to something special and find out just how good the food really is.
For schools that don't have their own programs, Cooking with Kids brings hands-on experience and fresh ingredients to more than 4,400 kids in 12 schools in Santa Fe.