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Charter-school lunch

(article, Deborah Madison)

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Monte del Sol is a charter school, which means it’s even more underfunded than other public schools in New Mexico. But Monte del Sol has developed an extensive water-harvesting system, enabling the school to have a program — the Edible Kitchen Garden program — emphasizing a school garden, school lunches, and culinary study.

Through the program the school has brought its kitchen up to code and hired a young man to be the school’s chef. Andre Kempton, who also cooks at a Spanish restaurant, prepares hot lunches for 350 kids and teachers three days a week. The culinary program, taught by Tanya Story, coordinates with the school-lunch prep. For example, if the class is learning to break down chicken, they do enough to provide chicken for the lunch menu the following day. If they’re learning to cut vegetables, they cut enough for minestrone for 350. 

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="A student in the kitchen garden at Monte del Sol."] This is a win-win situation, because the class gets to learn a technique by actually practicing it, and in doing so they provide some of the labor a cooked-from-scratch meal requires.

Some of the food used in the kitchen comes from the garden. Other food is purchased, while some is donated by Trader Joe’s. (When TJ's freezers went on the blink, Kempton was suddenly presented with pounds and pounds of shrimp, scallops, and squid, which he used to make a real Spanish paella for the kids. They loved it.) 

Local apples were obtained in the fall. It’s not all organic, and it’s not all local, but it is all cooked on site. The goal? Producing delicious lunches for about $3.50 per meal. Vegetarian options are offered, and desserts consist of fresh fruit.

[%image seeds float=right width=300 caption="Seed day."] While Kempton cooks traditional New Mexican lunches, like posole, he also introduces new dishes the kids might not know, like curries, or that paella. The other day the kids had pasta with asparagus, a vegetable many had never had before, but they loved it and came back for seconds.  

“Mostly the kids like everything,” Kempton says, “but they sure didn’t like the polenta pizza. We found lots of the crust in the trash.” So maybe it’s important to stay with their idea of pizza. In fact, one of the goals of the kitchen is to buy a Hobart mixer so that they can make real pizza for lunch, instead of the take-out version that shows up on Mondays or Fridays.

When I last ate at the school, some of the kids came up and said how much they loved lunch now because they felt full (!) and because the afternoon classes were much calmer and more enjoyable than they had ever been. The teachers have said the same thing.  

The school's goal is to serve five hot lunches a week, and Kempton would like to see better methods of getting food to the table. But for now, I'm thrilled with what’s happened in just one year. It would be great to change the whole system overnight, but one step at a time is how the school is progressing, and it’s building appetite for more.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She co-directs the Edible Kitchen Garden program at  Monte del Sol.

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