Story by Lori Peters
When you hear the words "middle school" and "lunch" in the same sentence, you might think of a teenager with a can of Coke in one hand and a bag of chips in another. What if I asked you, instead, to picture a group of 11- to 15-year-old students chopping onions with real knives, sauteing vegetables over a burner, or cutting Brussels sprouts off the stalk? Can you imagine teens making brownies with beets and avocado, or enjoying apples dipped in date paste and topped with coconut or almonds? If so, you'll know what lunch is like at One Spark Academy in Thousand Oaks, CA, courtesy of our Food Fascination courses.
Real Food over Processed Junk
I started One Spark Academy in July 2011, and was adamant that a healthy food component be part of it. After 16 years in public education, it was clear that more kids each year were eating poorly and moving less, and that's a recipe for big problems down the road! During this time, I hosted "healthy lunch" in the confines of my classroom, to provide a positive environment in which kids could enjoy eating well; meanwhile, in trash bins outside, I observed entire healthy lunches dumped in lieu of candy, chips or extra time to play. My attempts to get kids to commit to choosing real food over processed junk was met with debates about whether a granola bar was healthy, or if iceberg salad laden with heavy dressing could be considered nutritionally acceptable. I came to realize that many adults were disconnected from real food and, as such, their kids had a hard time adopting a healthy diet.
So, I decided to address these issues through One Spark Academy, a learning center for middle school age students who are home schooled or on independent study. Beyond offering a variety of interesting academic and enrichment courses in a safe, calm environment, our holistic view of education includes a commitment to students' health as much as to their minds. We want teens to learn about various foods, how to cook, how to eat well, and how to enjoy sweets in moderation. And, everyone who works with us agrees to eat well while at our center. Participants even promise to bypass the vending machines on the property we rent, and instead bring healthy snacks.
Educator Laura Holt-Erlig took on the challenge of creating a stellar food program. With no formal culinary training, her passion for cooking and gardening is combined with creativity and commitment to our mission, which enabled her to dream up something wonderful. Instead of just providing a healthy lunch option four days a week, we took our commitment to nutritional awareness one step further by offering Food Fascination, our signature cooking course, so students could be hands-on participants in the kitchen- learning as they help prepare the day's meal.
Learning Food Skills
What makes Food Fascination unique is that it's not just a "How To" class. It's a "Why?" class as well. Prior to an hour of cooking in the prep kitchen of the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, the facility we rent, there's a classroom lesson on, for example, seasonal foods, nutrition, or portion size. And, it's amazing what can be created in a kitchen without a stove, oven or many other modern kitchen appliances typically found in "school kitchens". Under the watchful eyes of Laura and chef assistant Jerri Baker, students skillfully and safely use a variety of sharp knives, burners, food processors, toaster ovens, or even a camping stove to create, from scratch, soups, salads, stir-fried vegetables, pastas, vegetarian sushi, and more.
Raw ingredients are always fresh and seasonal, with an emphasis on nutritional balance. When available, herbs, squash, and lettuces are picked fresh from our student-run garden. Sometimes, there's a bit of chicken, and often there's a delicious dessert with unexpected ingredients (like delectable ice cream made fresh with coconut milk and avocado). Sweets are enjoyed thoroughly, but... in moderation. After lunch, everyone composts what is left, then washes, sterilizes and dries his or her own reusable plate and silverware.
We're really proud of what we've created, and even more proud that we did it with very little money or elaborate kitchen resources.
Our goals are simple: to teach kids about a variety of real food, and provide them the experience of eating well and feeling great. This way, they can make informed choices about their diets and establish the kind of healthy nutritional habits early in life that will serve them as they grow up.
Granted, we are still small, presently serving about 25-30 students and staff for lunch a day. But we're hoping to create a sustainable model that will continue to grow because of our passion, and our commitment to making it happen.
About the Author: Lori Peters is the Founder, Executive Director, and an Educator at One Spark Academy. While she admits to loving homemade dessert and ice cream as much as she loves salads, sushi, and vegetables, she believes schools have a moral imperative to teach and model healthy habits. Lori is most in her element when working with creative kids who love to learn and passionate teachers who love to teach.