“Specials from our garden,” read the sandwich board in the lunch line at Lake Stevens Elementary’s cafeteria.
Students lined up for a salad listed as Romaine lettuce on the menu, but it included fragrant Okinawa spinach and cranberry hibiscus, beet-red leaves that taste of citrusy cranberries. And the baked chicken featured Caribbean thyme.
But the dish drawing the most attention was teacher Althea Ricketts-Burke’s curried chicken with pigeon peas, which, like the exotic herbs in the school lunch, are grown in Lake Stevens’ so-called food forest. It is one of 11 such self-sustaining gardens at Miami-Dade County public elementary schools and K-8s.
And for the first time, crops grown in the schools’ food forest are going on the menu. Farm-to-table dining has come to Miami-Dade school lunches.
“We want to incorporate all the things grown in the garden into the cafeteria,” said Ricketts-Burke, a math, science and social studies teacher who takes the children into the food forest for her science lesson plans and as part of her garden club.
Ricketts-Burke recently won a recipe contest by the Education Fund, which plants and maintains 51 edible gardens at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, to create a menu using produce grown at the school. Eleven of these gardens are certified food forests — 5,000-square-foot school farms that grow with little maintenance in South Florida’s climate.
Ricketts-Burke’s curry chicken and pigeon peas and rice, with a side of that “Romaine” salad, was chosen the winner and earned her a bonus to the stipend she gets to help maintain Lake Stevens’ food forest.
Gone are the days of small, novelty gardens at Miami-Dade public schools, filled with annuals that die out and require constant maintenance and replanting. They are being replaced by food forests, with edible perennials that are adapted to South Florida’s climate and continue to spread and produce crops with minimal upkeep.
In past years, the food forests have sent home more than 20,000 bags of vegetables and fruits grown at school to students’ families. The largest of the food forests is at Hialeah’s Twin Lakes Elementary, fully blooming at more than a quarter of an acre. Over the summer, parents of students will often visit the schools and take home bags of greens and root vegetables that just continue to provide. It’s a huge boost for many of the schools, which crop up in Miami’s food deserts.
But now they’ve entered the next step: transforming school lunches with crops from the food forests.
Debi La Belle, a Johnson & Wales-trained chef who helped open iconic Miami restaurants Nemo with Michael Schwartz and Azul with Michelle Bernstein, helps run the Education Fund’s food forest program. She works with cafeteria managers and teachers like Ricketts-Burke at the 51 schools to help incorporate the crops into school lunches.
“This is as hyper-local as it gets,” La Belle said. “This is their chance to say, ‘This is what I’d like to see on the menu.’ ”
Schools plant crops that reflect the diets and nationalities of their community, while still meeting the school system’s nutritional guidelines.
Hialeah schools with large Cuban communities plant malanga, yuca and boniato in their food forests. Schools with many Jamaican students plant sorrel hibiscus and moringa. Haitian communities may see Lalu spinach and moujean tea herbs on their school menu. And schools with large Mexican communities will find chaya (Mexican spinach) and chipilín, used to make masa for tamales.
“We don’t want to give them completely obscure ingredients,” La Belle said. “And these are ingredients that grow perfectly in our environment.”
The Education Fund builds and cares for the gardens with a renewable grant from Health Foundation of South Florida. Each of the gardens costs $30,000 to build, and the $500,000 a year it costs to maintain all 51 is covered by grants from the Health Foundation and Citi Cards.
It’s money well-spent, says the Health Foundation’s Janisse Schoepp, who oversees the grant and has reviewed statistics that show the program is improving the eating habits of students and their parents. Plus, Education Fund research they submitted to the Health Foundation showed science test scores went up at schools with food forests, Schoepp said.
“It’s changing their eating habits, “ Schoepp said. “The most important piece is getting them to eat healthy.”
The recipe contest is the first major step. Soon, many more school lunches will be enhanced regularly by what is grown in the food forests.
“It’s an opportunity for the students to taste and see and appreciate what is growing in their garden,” said Audra Wright, the nutrition wellness coordinator for Miami-Dade Public Schools.
As Ricketts-Burke modeled her dish, students recognized the pigeon peas (which Jamaicans call gungo peas) from the food forest and stopped to taste her dishes.
“It tastes kind of like lemon,” Aaliya Grillan, 10, said after tasting a mouthful of salad with cranberry hibiscus leaves.
Several other Lake Stevens students crowded around and poked at her salad plate with forks. Soon she had drawn a crowd.
And before long, teachers watched proudly as students asked for a second helping of greens from the school cafeteria.
Althea Ricketts-Burke’s Mouth-Watering Gungo Rice & Peas
3 cups of parboiled rice
1 pound green gungo/pigeon peas (from our garden, shelled, washed)
1 cup freshly grated coconut milk (can be substituted with 1 can of coconut milk)
1 stalk scallion from our garden, roughly chopped
1 sprig of fresh green thyme from our garden
1 whole green pepper from our garden
6 pimento seeds
1 clove garlic (grated or chopped)
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
4 cups water (or less)
Salt to taste
Pour 2 cups of water into a large cast-iron pot and add the gungo peas. Cook peas over medium heat until partially tender. Turn the temperature to high, cover and bring to a boil. Add 1 cup water to sink the gungo (because it will rise to the top). Add the scallion, thyme and whole green pepper, garlic and pimento seeds, cooking until gungo is soft. Gungo/pigeon peas take about 20 minutes to fully cook. By then, the water should be reduced to about 1 cup.
Lower the heat, add the coconut milk, and salt. Simmer for 2 minutes to absorb the flavors from the scallion, thyme, garlic, pimento seeds and whole green pepper. Turn heat to high. Add the parboiled rice and butter or margarine, stir to allow the rice and gungo peas/pigeon peas to be evenly distributed. Cover the pot and allow rice to cook. When the liquid has dried out of the rice, lower the heat to the lowest temperature. If the rice grains are not properly cooked, cover pot with foil paper and continue cooking rice until properly cooked. Remove from heat and serve with your choice of meat.
Ricketts-Burke’s Delectable, Delicious Curry Chicken
1 10-pound chicken cut into pieces
1/2 cup of lime juice
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs (optional)
2 tablespoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder or 1/2 cup onion, chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1 stalk scallion, chopped
1/2 ounce garlic powder or 2 cloves garlic, chopped or grated
1/4 cup ginger chopped or grated
2 ounces cooking oil
1/2 ounce vinegar
4 ounces water
2 white or gold potatoes, cut in 16 pieces
1/2 ounce black pepper
Cut chicken into pieces. Rinse with vinegar or lime juice and water in a pot or kitchen sink. Combine chicken with all ingredients and rub together until curry powder is wet and sticks to the chicken.
Heat cooking oil on high in a large iron skillet with 2 tablespoon of curry powder until the oil is hot and curry powder changes color. Add chicken to the hot oil, then lower temperature to medium. Add the water. Add diced potato then cover to allow the ingredients to simmer. Occasionally stir the ingredients in the pot to prevent sticking.
After 15 minutes, taste the gravy. Add salt more salt or pepper to taste. Add the sprig of thyme, the chopped onion and scallion to the pot. Allow to simmer until chicken is moist and tender. You can also thicken the gravy. To do so, remove the chicken and set aside. Raise temperature to high and allow gravy to boil. Using a spoon, stir the gravy slowly until it thickens. Optional: You can thicken with bread crumbs.
Crisp, Crunchy, Fresh Garden Salad
Mixed greens (from garden)
Cherry tomatoes (from garden)
Okinawan spinach (from garden)
2 cucumbers (from garden)
Baby carrots (optional)
Crumbled blue cheese (optional)
Dried cranberries (optional)
Toss ingredients in a bowl with your favorite vinaigrette dressing.