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Culinary students add service to lessons in food sustainability

Students at Pennsylvania College of Technology who spent eight weeks learning about sustainable food systems – including visits to area farms that make the most of their resources – wrapped up their learning with another sustainability concept: food security.

The students, all studying culinary arts, learned how they can be a link in the chain that connects food with those who need it. Namely, they spent the afternoon in the kitchen of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in Williamsport, using ingredients available there to prepare a nutritious meal for children who attend the after-school program at Firetree Place, one of the Food Bank’s partners.

Students in a Sustainability of Food Systems class visit the kitchen of Firetree Place, where they prepare to serve a meal to children in the after-school program. Before heading to Firetree, the group visited the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, where they used ingredients available through the organization to produce the meal. Firetree Place is one of the food bank’s partners. From left: Lance P. Bierly, of Centre Hall; Bryan Aguilar, of Reading; Nataly Acosta, of Shillington; Zoie B. Boyer, of Watsontown; Kayla M. Wilson, of Williamsport; Connor J. Raudenbush, of Fleetwood; Kelsyn M. Hart, of Linden; Chef Michael J. Ditchfield, instructor of hospitality management/culinary arts; and Mike S. Dinan, of Williamsport.
Students in a Sustainability of Food Systems class visit the kitchen of Firetree Place, where they prepare to serve a meal to children in the after-school program. Before heading to Firetree, the group visited the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, where they used ingredients available through the organization to produce the meal. Firetree Place is one of the food bank’s partners. From left: Lance P. Bierly, of Centre Hall; Bryan Aguilar, of Reading; Nataly Acosta, of Shillington; Zoie B. Boyer, of Watsontown; Kayla M. Wilson, of Williamsport; Connor J. Raudenbush, of Fleetwood; Kelsyn M. Hart, of Linden; Chef Michael J. Ditchfield, instructor of hospitality management/culinary arts; and Mike S. Dinan, of Williamsport.

“It’s a cool opportunity that the Food Bank will have us out here and provide the ingredients to make these kids a nice meal, and a great opportunity to have them learn a little about what we’re trying to do here – and expand their culinary horizons,” said Connor J. Raudenbush, a culinary arts technology student from Fleetwood.

The afternoon’s menu included chicken ratatouille; rice; a salad of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onion and Italian dressing; and warm apple bread pudding.

After cooking the meal in the Food Bank’s kitchen, the class traveled to Firetree Place, where they served their culinary creation to about 60 children.

“For some of them, it’s the first time they’ll try some of these foods,” said Trista Falls, Firetree’s food program director.

Participants visit Firetree before and after school, where they have homework time, gym time and a lesson plan or activity that focuses on soft skills. They are served a meal both before and after school.

The children’s feedback for the visitors in white coats and tall hats was enthusiastic praise.

“The message to the students in this class is that we are pretty fortunate,” said Michael J. Ditchfield, instructor of food and hospitality management/culinary arts, who teaches the class and grew up a few blocks from Firetree. “They are learning about food security and food equity, and that there’s a whole group of people who don’t know when they are going to eat next.

“It’s easy to volunteer our time and be good neighbors. With the nature of some of my classes, with the support of the college, I am able to get the students involved in some of the community partnerships, such as the Food Bank and Firetree Place. And the students enjoy doing this.”

“Growing up, I was food insecure, and we went to the Food Bank. And so, in my mind, it’s coming full circle, giving back,” said Zoie B. Boyer, a culinary arts technology student from Watsontown.

The students also employed their skills – and spices provided by the Food Bank – to develop a spice blend for black beans. The blend was packaged in individual bottles and loaded in the suitcases of a group of Penn College nursing students traveling to Guatemala to help at a weeklong medical clinic. The nursing students are being led by Christine B. Kavanagh, assistant professor of nursing, who enrolled in the Sustainability of Food Systems class this semester.

The seasoning – along with a recipe for black bean soup that uses the blend – is being given by nutritionists at the free clinic that is operated in Nueva Santa Rosa, a rural, medically underserved community, by the Glen Falls (New York) Medical Mission. Black beans are a plentiful, nutritious crop in Guatemala.

For two years, Ditchfield’s sustainability class has made spice mixes that the Food Bank distributes to its clients locally.

In conjunction with lessons about food equity, the sustainability course took the students to area farms that employ sustainable or organic practices.

“It was eye-opening,” said culinary arts technology student Nataly Acosta, of Shillington, as she recounted a visit to Beech Grove Farm, where she saw owner Anne Nordell’s use of cover crops, compost and other practices to replenish soil. “This summer we didn’t get a lot of rain, and her plants were fine.”

Raudenbush talked about visits to a fish nursery and to Milky Way Farms, in Troy, where he tasted “the best chocolate milk, hands-down,” sold in glass bottles. Farm owner Kim Seeley has reduced the use of heavy equipment and chemicals to make the farm a safer place for his family and boost the health of his herd, which, in turn, produces healthier products for his customers.

Lance P. Bierly, of Centre Hall, envisions employing what he learned in his future: “It made me more interested in keeping my own sustainable farm,” he said. “I’ve been interested in keeping my own plants. I’ve found an interest in developing rich soils, the kind of soil that grows healthy herbs, plants, fruits and veggies.”

Kelsyn M. Hart, a culinary arts technology student from Linden, will also put her learning to practical use: “just being more conscious of what I buy and having the right mindset when cooking.”

To learn more about culinary arts majors at Penn College, call 570-327-4505.

For information about Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

– Photos by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/magazine editor

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