Food Lab Celebrates 30 Years of Healthy Food Empowerment

Food Lab Celebrates 30 Years Of Healthy Food Empowerment

Tue 08 Jul 2014

Story by Andrea Riordan

Food Lab of Pacific Elementary School (PS) in Davenport, California has some big reasons to celebrate. This year the program, which has educated over 600 students since its inception in 1984, has its 30th Anniversary of The Kitchen Classroom. Food Lab has also just welcomed its new director, Emelia Miguel. Stephanie Raugust, Food Lab’s founder and icon of Central California’s food movement, retired this year, although she remains vibrantly involved in all parts of Pacific Elementary.

Food Lab was created by Raugust’s desire to feed her children the most nutritious and tasty food possible. This was during a time when elementary schools in Santa Cruz were serving institutional food at its worst: prepackaged, low quality food prepared elsewhere with no hands on engagement from the students.

Food Lab is a name coined by Raugust as a way to show connectivity with Life Lab, another Santa Cruz based school program started just five years before Food Lab that focuses on gardens and is now internationally recognized. The numbers Food Lab boasts are impressive: it has served more than 405,000 meals, has graduated more than 600 alumnae, and beginning last year, through fundraising efforts and the help of generous donors, is now able to exclusively serve organic eggs and milk to the Pacific School.

Where Food Lab is now, thirty years later, shows that not only does slow food create the strongest menu, slowly grown business creates the strongest foundation. It is just now beginning to bolt up and out as a possible template model that can be replicated nationwide, just like Life Lab. Pacific School’s garden has recently been revamped and the kitchen uses the new raised beds for much of its produce. In addition, the Food Lab Manual, which is available to the public, is all of Food Lab’s experience and innovation put together in a concise and accessible blueprint.

Emelia Miguel is just the woman to take on Food Lab’s burgeoning powerhouse status. She is driven, passionate and a mother of a Pacific Elementary alumna. Says Miguel, “I essentially apprenticed with Stephanie Raugust for six years before taking on this job. I was here, volunteering and working at the school so that I could be involved in my daughter’s life in a lasting and meaningful way. What struck me was the whole-education model provided for the children. In the hour that the fifth and sixth graders spent in the kitchen preparing lunch for the entire school, they learned ten new skills.”

Full disclosure - I have two children at PS and also work in the kitchen. When I’m busy working as a prep cook or setting up the family style seating for all 100 children and adults who eat lunch on any given day, it’s the soundscape that deepens my respect for Food Lab. It’s begging for an audio documentary. At one station, a child is learning to deal with ratios and conversion; at another, two children are comparing notes on their custom kale stripping techniques and how the potatoes are doing in the garden. This is the kind of learning a child remembers well into their adulthood. They use it, too, says alumna Shea McElroy, now a freshman at Reed College. “Every time I chop vegetables I can hear Stephanie telling me to keep the tip of the knife in contact with the cutting board. I still cut apples the way she taught us to in food lab. Food lab instilled in me the knowledge that healthy food can (and should) be tasty and easy to prepare, which I use every time I cook.”

About the author: Andrea Riordan is a freelance journalist specializing in food politics. She is a published poet and researcher. Andrea is a graduate of UCSC’s Community Studies and is a long time resident of Santa Cruz. She lives in Davenport with her husband and two children, five chickens and a cat.


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