Here’s something that grew, as many things do, in a garden. But this was an idea, the beginning of a project. And that idea — that project — is also a garden.
Let me explain.
For several years, Kevin Fonzo has had a garden behind his restaurant at 1710 Edgewater Drive, even before he moved K restaurant there, when it was still known as Nonna. Fonzo was somewhat ahead of the trend to use local ingredients and way ahead of the “hyperlocal” sourcing movement that currently has chefs scouring their properties for space to plant herbs and vegetables.
Fonzo has a few tables in his garden available for diners, and on one evening, about six or so years ago, Brad Jones was dining in the garden behind Nonna. Jones, it turned out, is an instructor at Orlando Junior Academy. He chatted with Fonzo about a garden he was trying to get started and they shared tips and gardening secrets.
Jones told Fonzo that the school was currently in search of someone to run the cafeteria, and he wondered if Fonzo might know of someone who might be interested in the position. Fonzo recommended himself.
Just take a moment to mull the idea of one of the area’s most celebrated chefs cooking in a school cafeteria. But that’s exactly what occurred. And before you start imagining the kids dining on porcini dusted filets and grilled duck breast, you should know that OJA is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventists and so its cafeteria is strictly vegetarian.
Fonzo enjoyed the challenge and he liked being able to show the kids that food doesn’t necessarily come out of a can, or a deep fryer for that matter. And as he became more involved in the school’s garden, it became apparent to the school’s administrators that Fonzo could be of more use in the classroom.
And that’s how he became involved in OJA’s Edible Schoolyard Project.
The Edible Schoolyard is a national project that began in Berkeley when another chef — Alice Waters; maybe you’ve heard of her — helped a school in her community begin a garden, partially as a way to make the school’s property look less blighted.
Now there are Edible Schoolyards all around the country. Some are more elaborate than others — some include teaching kitchens and some even keep chickens and ducks.
I visited OJA’s facility recently as a judge for an “Iron Chef” competition that the students in one of Fonzo’s classes was having. I watched as they chopped and diced and stirred, and then plated their food to present to us for our appraisal. All of this, by the way, was accomplished at makeshift cooking stations on hot plates — there are no kitchen facilities for the students to work in.
Afterwards I chatted with some of the students about what they’ve learned about food and whether their eating habits had been affected. One student told me that he had gone to a restaurant with his mother recently and when he placed his order the server asked him if he wanted fries or fruit with it. “Oh, he’ll have the fries,” his mother said. But the kid spoke up and said, “No, I’ll have the fruit.”
Teach kids there’s something better to eat — and why it’s better — and they just might make better nutritional choices.
And it wasn’t just this one student — all of them were engaged and excited and more knowledgeable than your average McHappy Meal-munching kid. I was impressed, and I’d like to see this idea expand.
And the Edible Schoolyard goes beyond teaching about nutrition and food. It’s useful from a mathematics standpoint, and for teaching science. It could actually make those subjects more palatable.
Orlando Junior Academy has plans to grow its Edible Schoolyard Project with the construction of a teaching kitchen and expanded garden. Work is underway on a recently acquired property across the street from the campus. But, it should come as no surprise, funds are limited.
So here’s what we’re doing. Fonzo has authorized me to offer a special SJO Dining Deal to K Restaurant. And for every certificate sold, SJO will donate $1 to Orlando Junior Academy’s Edible Schoolyard Project.
This is not about shepherding kids into a career in the culinary arts, though it is possible that some students in each class might find that they love it and pursue that course — Fonzo is certainly a good role model.
It’s a wonderful way to treat yourself to a great deal and to support this really fine project.