Noah Sweet and Brandon Archer are going places.
The two second-year leaders in the culinary program at Muskegon Area Career Tech Center provided a student perspective at this year’s National Farm to Cafeteria Conference.
Instructor Elissa Penczar designed the second-year program to cultivate student leadership in collaboration with the food service program at Whitehall District and Montague Area Public Schools. The districts are among 32 receiving funding from 10 Cents a Meal for School Kids & Farms, a state pilot program administered by Michigan Department of Education. The program supplements school food service budgets with matching funds for local produce purchases.
Sweet and Archer presented alongside 10 Cents partners and attended sessions with eight of their classmates. Sweet also sat on a closing panel alongside other youth leaders in school food from around the country.
Inspired by their perspective, I caught up with them on their last day of school to hear the story behind their community-minded culinary program and their thoughts on the future of school food.
How has the culinary program affected the way you eat at home?
“When I first started cooking, I would never want garlic and onions. Now they’re two of my favorite things. My teacher encouraged me to try it in a couple of different forms. Not being afraid to try new things is a big part of this program.” – Brandon
How are you supported to lead in the culinary program?
“They’re letting us step in. They tell us, ‘Here is a project we want you to do. But you have to come up with the recipes, this is your project. We will support you if you’re struggling.’ But they don’t take over.” – Noah
“If we have an idea for a recipe and we don’t get the taste or look we want, we can fall back on our teacher’s experience. In this program, every adult is pushing us forward and encouraging us. They’re always there to help and put their own time into it.” – Brandon
What is the first thing you would change about your school’s food service program?
“I’m tired of pre-packaged foods with no flavor. You can adjust the flavor of fresh foods, local foods.” – Noah
“I would adjust the color. A lot of bland colors when you look at the trays. Pre-packed items have been sitting in a cooler for months. In our program, we try to catch attention with vibrant colors.” – Brandon
What role do you see for student leaders in the farm to school movement?
“Students need to get more involved in their food system. Talk to your food service director.” – Noah
Where do you plan to take your leadership skills in the future?
“I’ve already started reaching out into the community with local chefs, and it’s cool to see that there is space to grow. Like the local foods council dinner, I’m going to this afternoon. The culinary program has made me fall in love with this kind of stuff so much that the culinary school I’m looking into is all about growing the farm to table movement.” –Brandon
“I want to go into pastry. I want to bring in locally sourced fruits and Michigan-grown products to make my food healthy. I’ll educate others on what we have here and how we can use it.” – Noah
What was your biggest takeaway from the conference?
“Students actually have a voice and they are pushing forward this movement on healthy eating. I got to speak on a panel led by the keynote [17-year-old health advocate Haile Thomas]. We’re following each other on Instagram and she’s really excited about the work we’re doing in our community.” – Noah
“I’m thankful [10 Cents] has gotten this attention. It’s a cool thing we’re doing, and I hope to see it recognized more on a national level. It was a great opportunity for Noah and me to talk on this panel with others who want to see great things happening for this community.” – Brandon
What would you tell legislators who are skeptical about including 10 Cents in the state budget?
“This program is helping drive more education and better eating habits in Michigan. Our obesity rate is a problem in Muskegon and we would like to see [10 Cents] popping up in more school districts.” – Brandon
“This helps students. This is a good program to support your food system. If you care about student well-being you should consider this program.” – Noah