By Jill Draper
A lackluster salad bar—iceberg lettuce, carrots and sometimes one additional raw vegetable—gave students at Center Alternative School the idea for their winning entry in a “Shark Tank”-style competition sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of America.
The goal was to design a project that creates healthier food options or promotes careers in agriculture. The prize was a $1,000 grant to bring the idea to life.
A team from the school’s culinary class was one of 15 from throughout the metro area that received one of these grants. Students worked with DFA employee volunteers to develop farm-to-table solutions, later pitching their ideas to a panel of judges. Five students from Center Alternative School took part, proposing a lunchroom smoothie machine and a salad cart featuring spinach, romaine lettuce, shredded cheese and a greater variety of veggies and dressings. The salad cart won a grant, and now the students will work with the school’s food provider, Sodexo, to finalize the purchase.
“The kids have even figured out a location for it,” says Glenda Gudmonson, who teaches the school’s culinary class. The district’s larger Center High has had a similar class for about 10 years, but the smaller alternative school’s class began in fall 2016. Gudmonson bases much of her classwork on the National Restaurant Association’s ProStart curriculum, designed to offer students who complete the requirements a boost into the food service industry.
Many in her classroom already have held food-related jobs McDonald’s, Sonic, Price Chopper and North Italia, and two teens have positions at MiDici, a new Ward Parkway Shopping Center pizzeria. They don’t all aspire to restaurant careers, but they do admit they’re learning practical skills.
Alyssa Carullo wants to be a third-grade teacher, but hopes to use the experience she’s gaining to run a party planning and catering business on the side. LyDell Williams describes the culinary class as “just an elective,” but brags about his made-from-scratch tomato sauce. Another student chimes in from across the classroom, “I can cook better than my mama.”
Gudmonson earned a home economics degree in family finances and worked in the business world for many years before returning to school to earn a master’s degree in education. She had retired from teaching at Center High when she returned as a part-time instructor at the alternative school—a smaller facility at 85th Street and Paseo Boulevard that offers more individualized support for middle and high school kids.
Her students cook two or three days a week, and on other days they practice knife skills, learn about safety and sanitation, study career paths of famous chefs and recognize the importance of “mise en place”—a French term for putting everything in place before beginning to cook.
“Teaching is the hardest job I’ve ever done,” Gudmonson admits. “When you’re here, you’re always on—the whole time, with no breaks. But I love it, and I have a great principal.”
Aspiring teacher Alyssa says the class is fun. “It gives me more adventures, and I like actually knowing how to make stuff.” This stuff includes foods the students have never eaten before—poached eggs, chicken cordon bleu, and for some, homemade cookies. Their most difficult dish? Eggs Benedict, which involves whisking together a Hollandaise sauce. One team accidentally mixed it with the eggs before cooking them. That proved to be a lesson in the necessity of reading through the instructions first.
In the end, Gudmonson says, the class is about more than proper culinary procedures. “All these kids have a story. I have two moms in here. I have one student who just got out of the hospital.
“If it’s a really bad day, we talk a lot and we make chocolate chip cookies. I teach cooking, but I also teach life.”