ST. LOUIS - When you first walk into the Salus Processing Center at Saint Louis University, the first thing you notice is the kitchen is chock full of students in aprons and hairnets. Located in the Salus Building on SLU's Medical Center, the kitchen has been transformed into an interactive classroom.
A quick sweep over the kitchen and you will see each student is responsible for a task, and are working in a synchronized, systematic manner. You might assume that these are SLU culinary students, but you would be incorrect; all are students enrolled in Saint Louis area public high schools.
These students are all participating in a six-week culinary training program that is part of the Healthy Eating with Local Produce - Saint Louis Public Schools (HELP-SLPS) grant that is funded by the Missouri Foundation for Health. The program, which runs out of the Salus Processing Center, is managed by SLU's Department of Nutrition and Dietetics.
HELP-SLPS, a Farm to School program dedicated to bringing fresh local foods into schools and supporting local agriculture builds on the original MFH grant written by Dr. Mildred Mattfeldt-Beman that centered on the Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District. HELP-SLPS is a new chapter and forms a partnership with Saint Louis area public schools to provide local produce, nutrition education and culinary training. The goal of the program is to process local foods that can be used in each school's cafeteria throughout the school year. Some examples of processed items are tomatoes into marinara, sweet potatoes into sweet potato fries, and apples into applesauce. HELP-SLPS works closely with school food service staff to create delicious healthy foods for students while educating them about the benefits of a more healthful diet and the importance of supporting a local food system.
"Providing children with healthy food at school is a monumental challenge and well worth the effort" says Mildred Mattfeldt-Beman, Ph.D., chair of the department of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University's Doisy College of Health Sciences. "One of our goals is to connect children with their food system - eating locally grown fruits and vegetables. HELP-SLPS plans to get more produce from the farm to the school, which benefits the local economy while providing food at its peak of flavor. We're fighting childhood obesity as we increase business for local farmers. We want to build a healthy school lunch program that will endure long after our three-year grant has ended. This project demonstrates the power of partnership - Saint Louis Public School District, SLU, Chartwells-Thompson food service, Missouri and Illinois Farmers and Farm to Family Naturally resulting in a win for everyone, most importantly for the students, and it keeps dollars in the region."
Chef Steve Jenkins, HELP-SLPS Program Director and Instructor at Saint Louis University, believes the program serves two purposes: educating students about local foods, and orienting students to food service. "This program is hard work and teaches students a good work ethic. I see this program as a career orientation for many of them, introducing them to food service and opening their eyes to a future in this industry," said Jenkins.
Entrance into the program is not easy, and students must go through an admission process. The students that are invited to participate learn a range of skills. The days consist of food processing, educational seminars, and culinary classes. The food processing is the main component since the goal is providing local schools with the final product, but each day is different.
The culinary aspect is what a lot of the students enjoy the most. Michael Jackson, current student at Cleveland NJROTC High School, says, "My favorite activity has been making pasta. I loved learning how to make pasta from scratch. I had never seen anyone do it before and I had never tried. I think it was the most fun because we made it ourselves, and it tasted excellent."
The curriculum also focuses on entrepreneurship and business aspects such as food costing. Sanchez Smotherman, current student at Normandy High School, says, "I really enjoyed when we got to market our own product at Fresh Gatherings Café. We made chips that had cinnamon and ranch, I was really proud of what we had done. The two ingredients were really good together and I enjoyed telling others about our product."
The goal is that each student completes the program, and continues to assist the school in sourcing local foods and processing them. The hope is that the knowledge instilled in these students will be taught to peers, educators and administration to initiate change in each school.