The last time I told you about Lieutenant Siefert and the Navy and how he and I began a training program at 32nd Street Naval Galley. Well, the second instance that changed me and brought me down a path of working with kids was when I met Staci Monreal. She and her husband were in for dinner one evening about 6 years ago, and much like with Lieutenant Siefert, Staci shook my hand when I came around during table visits. She also told me that the food was fantastic and asked if I would be interested in helping her with her “garden project” at Central Elementary where she was the principal. I asked what that would entail and she said, “I’m not quite sure yet. I inherited a garden at my school and I don’t know what to do with it.” I told her that I had read about Alice Waters’ program up in Berkeley and that it would be fun working with kids. When we first started, we had an advisory board of 4 people. Later, we had about 20 people from different organizations coming to the table to help and offer their support. We still really didn’t know what to do or how to do it, we just realized this was a great opportunity that we should keep exploring.
The San Diego City Schools Food Services Director, a good friend of mine, had called me one day and told me that he was hiring a Chef to oversee the food services for San Diego Unified. His name was Marc and he called me one day because he found out about our garden project. Now you have to understand that garden projects were not new, but they were a little in their premature stage 6 years ago in San Diego. Anyway, Marc wanted to come and chat about the project and see how he could help. At this point, the garden was in full swing and Augustine, who still works with the school, is a 6 to 6 coordinator with the YMCA and is very passionate about his garden and the kids that love to go in it. Marc came to Terra and I told him my passion and what we wanted to grow food, harvest it and teach the kids how to cook with what they have. The first project I did, was to have a school wide assembly featuring 100 percent school grown produce. Staci and I decided to do 3 separate times to include the entire school making a salad and dressing from garden edibles. WOW!!! She was so excited tears were running down her face. This principal had so much passion for the kids and this project. She was so committed in making this a success. We had the assembly and I even asked for student volunteers to help make the salad dressing. Now Central had kindergarten students and trust me, this was no easy task in getting them to sit still and pay attention for 20 minutes. After each if the 3 assemblies, the students, with the help of the teachers, were able to take samples of the properly dressed salad back to their classrooms to try. I think it was exciting to them to know that it came from their garden.
After the success of this endeavor, Marc and I decided to hold a Fall Festival for the entire school. This was going to be a big project. We were planning on having all the kids and their families to the school for a lunchtime BBQ with activities conducted by the students and their classes culminating in a killer lunch with corn on the cob, grilled steak and chicken and salad for about 1000 people. Marc was able to run this through the cafeteria and charge this as if it were their daily lunch. So, no extra cost but just a lot of my time and his. He even had the city schools food services team bring truckloads of canopies, tents, chairs and grills for us to cook on: This was definitely a team effort. In our planning meetings, Staci wanted to invite some community members and I remember county supervisors, people from Health and Human Services, city councilmembers and others were there.
After the event, at our next advisory board meeting we grew to about 15 members, all who were at or were told about that event. They saw the passion and the vision and wanted to be a part of this growth. Tracy Delaney from Health and Family Services was a big proponent and wanted to push this with the Childhood Obesity Initiative and make Central a model school and pilot program for the entire county of San Diego. I was asked to do a Chef demonstration infront of 600 educators at a conference at the Town and Country Hotel back in After that, we met a few more time and talked about composting, recycling and harvesting the produce and bringing it into the cafeteria. Well, Staci was asked to go to Los Angeles for a wonderful opportunity and she took it. I got very busy and lost communication with Central and the new principal Cindy Martin.
Over the years of teaching cooking classes, I accumulated an array of recipes that people were always excited about and asked me when I was going to out them into print. I was always told that a cookbook project takes about 2-3 years and it’s extremely time consuming. Well, I wasn’t really ready to take that on. However, I did reach out to a local San Diego publishing company to see if they were interested: no luck. It wasn’t until my photographer, Paul Body came into Terra to take some food shots for an upcoming review that I decided to write the book.
I recently reached back out to Central and Cindy to re-connect and establish our garden based learning objectives once again. I’ve been in contact with the San Diego City School’s Food Services Director regarding harvesting our produce and bringing it into the cafeteria at Central. Very cool stuff.