DAVENPORT, Calif. — When the clock strikes 9 o'clock at Pacific Elementary School, students transform into chefs and the countdown to lunchtime begins.
Fifth and sixth graders are tasked with serving daily meals to more than 160 students and staff.
“You’re going to learn the process and the steps that it takes," said Food Service Director, Emelia Miguel. "And you’re going to appreciate it a little bit more because you know what it took to make that food.”
Since 1984, students in the FoodLab program have been involved in planning, planting, harvesting, and cooking fresh, healthy meals for the school.
“There’s a hitch every day! But it always works out," said Miguel. “We usually have about four or five students in the kitchen every day. And they make magic happen, they really do.”
While the program receives donations of fresh produce from nearby farms, Miguel says they rely heavily on ingredients provided by the USDA National School Lunch Program.
“The chili, we use five different kinds of beans and it’s all USDA foods. And it’s so good,” said Miguel.
From German Spaetzle to latkes for Hanukkah, menus are planned with diverse cultural holidays in mind, giving students the chance to experience food from around the world.
“We try new menus and I ask the kids 'thumbs up or thumbs down' if they like them. They let me know what they want to see on the menu."
Students also prepare lunchtime favorites like fish tacos and pizza.
Popular among students, the FoodLab also helps sustain the school financially. Located in a town of fewer than 400 people, the program draws in students from other districts, tripling enrollment.
“They’re being fed well at other schools, but they [parents] love it that the kids are a part of that process. And when kids are a part of the process, they eat that food."
Before students work in the kitchen, they learn how to safely use knives and operate kitchen equipment. Throughout the program, children develop problem-solving, time management, and social skills.
Miguel believes districts of all sizes can adopt similar models.
“When you take chips away from a kid, it’s really hard,“ said Miguel. "It’s just changing the culture, changing the culture of what kids are used to.”
She also credits the program's success to strong support from the administration and staff.
“You just have to start it and do it," said Miguel. "And trust those kids, they are so capable.”
Schools can apply for funding to roll out innovative programs like FoodLab. Each year, the USDA Farm to School grant helps improves access to fresh local foods, investing in school gardens and kitchen infrastructure.