It was not the slamming of lockers or the shouts of students that filled the hallways of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Monday night. It was the sweet smell of roasting garlic.
Hastily drawn signs with arrows pointing toward the culinary arts department were few and far between. But had they plastered the halls, no one would have noticed. The scent alone was enough to guide anyone with a nose and an appetite.
Just shy of 6 p.m., the parking spots in front of the high school started to fill for the first winter local foods dinner, a collaboration between the culinary arts department and the recently organized Farm to School outreach program.
Farm to School is a national program which works to connect schools with nearby farms to serve healthy meals, educate students about nutrition and support local farmers. The Island Grown Initiative organized the first Farm to School meeting on the Vineyard in December. Monday’s dinner — boasting a menu with 85 per cent of the ingredients, right down to the parsley sprinkled over the parsnip soup, grown locally — was the kickoff event for the group. “It is one of the first Farm to School success stories,” said Ali Berlow, executive director of the Island Grown Initiative.
The idea of the dinner emerged at the first Farm to School meeting. Dan Sauer, chef at the Outermost Inn, made the trek from Aquinnah to attend the gathering. “It is important to get local food into the school system,” he said this week. “It is important to teach the kids about local food and get them eating local food.” Mr. Sauer uses Island fruits and vegetables, fish and meat at his inn. He frequents Morning Glory Farm and the FARM Institute and went to every Saturday West Tisbury Farmer’s Market this summer.
At the December meeting, Mr. Sauer met Noli Taylor, volunteer coordinator for the Island Grown Initiative. Most Farm to School initiatives begin in elementary schools, Mrs. Taylor said, but the two agreed the culinary arts students at the high school would be a perfect group to launch the program.
They approached Jack O’Malley, program director of the culinary arts department. Mr. O’Malley has long been interested in incorporating more Island food into his program. “We would be supporting the local farmer and the quality is much better,” Mr. O’Malley said. “Plus, there is more variety, what you are going to get is less guaranteed and you can charge more for local produce. There is a business aspect to it and the kids have to learn how to weigh these issues.” With Mr. O’Malley on board, the planning began.
Last week, Mr. Sauer visited the high school and spoke with a group of culinary arts students about what makes food local. “We have a unique situation being on an Island,” he said. “We have a real opportunity to see what local is. Elsewhere, the debate is, is it from 100 miles away, 150 miles? On the Vineyard, it’s right here.” He shared tips with the students about buying locally and cooking with Island-grown products. “It can be challenging to use local food, every little bit helps,” he told them.
Mr. Sauer then went to work creating a menu. It was no small task. The dishes had to be easy for the students to cook and plate. And it is February. “This time of year, there’s not too much available,” he said. “I went into a lot of root cellars.” The struggle to find local food in the dead of winter was part of the point. “People need to understand that locally grown food is not just about the bounty of summer,” Mrs. Berlow said.
Island farmers donated all the meat and produce for the dinner, which was a fund raiser for the culinary arts department. Tickets — there were only 60 and they sold for $25 apiece — went on sale last week. By Monday morning, they were gone. Still, a number of people showed up at the door. Table settings were rearranged, extra chairs added and without breaking a sweat, the all-student wait and kitchen staff, with the help of Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Sauer, geared up for an overflow crowd.
“We were worried about how much food we would be able to find in the middle of February,” Mrs. Taylor told those gathered before the feast began. “Let this be a reminder to us of the bounty available here.”
With that, the doors to the kitchen swung open and out came student waiter Zachary Maciel with a full tray. He placed steaming bowls of Aquinnah bay scallops with winter squash and ham from Morning Glory Farm in front of hungry diners. Freshly baked bread was on hand to mop up the broth. “How can you beat fresh bay scallops this time of year?” asked Gina deBettencourt, food service director at the Edgartown School. Mrs. deBettencourt, who this fall used local vegetables from Morning Glory Farm in her cafeteria, has attended every Farm to School meeting. “The kids really enjoy being a part of this and the kids, those are the ones we need to target,” she said.
The empty bowls were soon cleared and a parsnip soup filled the void. Creamy and warm, the soup tasted of the earth. “It tasted like parsnips,” exclaimed Suzanne Warren, delighted. Across from her was Roxanne Kapitan, a member of Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s a foodies gathering so I’m here riding the wave, the local wave,” she said as she savored her last spoonful. Diners loosened their belts for an entree of ravioli, filled with braised beef from the Allen Farm, and garlic potato puree with carrots.
“They were just a little smaller. They were just as good to use though, if not better. The flavor was better,” said student chef Ben Ferry as he reflected on the Morning Glory Farm potatoes that went into the dish. “The difference was in the dirt,” his classmate Taylor Eppers said. “You really have to rinse it off. There’s a little more effort, but it’s a lot fresher.”
A dark chocolate pudding with citrus and earl grey whipped cream was a sweet finale to the meal. Donna Beckman of Vineyard Haven beamed at the dessert in front of her. Her daughter, a 2000 graduate of the culinary arts program, is now the executive pastry chef at the Black Dog. “If no one had supported my daughter, she wouldn’t be where she is today,” she said. Mrs. Beckman came Monday to encourage the next generation of Island chefs.
The evening raised more than $1,500 for the culinary arts department, money Mr. O’Malley hopes to use to buy a Community Supported Agriculture share for the students next year. “It was a total success,” he said wearing a grin below his white chef’s hat.
The dinner Monday was just the beginning of what the Island community can expect from the Farm to School program. Planning for school gardens and farm visits has begun and Mrs. Taylor hopes the culinary arts students will visit the elementary schools to conduct cooking demonstrations. The next meeting of the Farm to School group will be at 7 p.m. on April 15 at Island Co-housing and Mrs. Berlow encourages anyone interested to attend. “Schools and farming just fit together so nicely,” she said.