By Maggie Pilloton, Kite Staff Writer
For over 18 years, MCDS Chef Jason Hull has contributed to the faculty, staff, students, and community’s overall health and wellness as the leader of the MCDS kitchen team.
During that time, he co-founded the Culinary Farm program (along with former Science teacher Bob Densmore) and has become a vocal advocate for healthy school lunch programs nationwide through the Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Kids Collaborative. In 2010 he joined chefs from around the country at the White House for the launch of “Chefs Moves to Schools,” an initiative spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama to improve school nutrition by getting more chefs involved in local school lunch programs.
We talked with him about the importance of teaching kids where their food comes from, the Culinary Farm program — including his favorite “ah-ha” moments with students — and the challenges COVID-19 presents to a lunch program that serves over 700 people each day.
The food that you and your team provide on a daily basis is incredible! I get a sense that it’s not just about providing people with meals. What does it mean to you personally to feed 600 kids and 150 adults healthy meals every day?
Running MCDS’s kitchen over the past 18 years has become my life’s work. I have an incredible kitchen team and couldn’t accomplish any of the hard and gratifying work without them. I’ve enjoyed cooking since I was young because I like to feed people, and it seems to always put a smile on one’s face and brighten their day. I am very grateful for the many smiling faces at MCDS.
COVID has really thrown us out of our routines. What was your mindset and your approach in shifting how you served and make food during the early days of COVID?
When working in a kitchen, you make many pivots a day. I leaned on my kitchen team but also was able to lean on my many friends around the country who are leaders in school nutrition. I was able to use the same approach as usual, scratch cooking and keeping it simple, which always drives our success.
Feeding our students fresh, healthy, and local organic foods is the goal each and every day.
Food can be a part of a culture that brings people together, physically and spiritually, and you do that through the camaraderie you build with your team and the students’ involvement in making their own food. Why is it important to build community and knowledge around food in a school environment?
We can’t wait until we can have our students eating together in our lunchrooms again. It will be a joyous day! I do think of the lunchroom and garden spaces as extensions of the classroom. It is important to me that our students learn, from a young age, how to fuel their bodies in healthy ways for themselves and the planet. In many ways, this is learned when the community is able to “break bread” together.
In a recent article for ServedDigizine.com you wrote, “We have known for many years that if you involve a child in the process of creating a meal, they are more apt to not only try it but also like it.” What are some of your favorite Culinary Farm moments?
Our students “ah ha” moments when they discover and like new foods, flavors, and textures when we do mindful tastings. Sometimes, it’s a tomato ripe off the vine, a carrot right from the ground, a lemon right off our trees, or something exotic we ordered from our local produce purveyor. Growing kale with our students from seed to table then making kale chips with them and seeing them gobble it up.
Teaching our students about where their food comes from has been the foundation of the last decade, when [former science teacher] Bob Densmore (pictured below) and I founded the Culinary Farm program.
And there’ll soon be a new space to teach students more about growing, tending and harvesting with the addition of a hillside garden and orchard in the Upper Campus. What can you tell us about the new garden space?
For the past decade, we have been dreaming up different ways to expand our gardens and growing spaces for Culinary Farm. We loved the idea of expanding the Culinary Farm Garden and Greenhouse space up the hillside to add an orchard with many varieties of fruit trees. The hillside space was created with walking paths with access from different parts of campus so we decided that growing vegetables along with an orchard would be the best use of this amazing area. Support from a generous donor helped us plant our first trees in February — fig, pomegranate, a variety of pear and apple trees and persimmon. We'll be adding lemon and lime trees soon as well. We will also be planting summer squashes, winter squashes, pumpkins and sunflowers,
When will the space be completed?
We will be completing a lot of the heavy lifting like deer fencing, gates, and irrigation this summer. We will also be creating in-garden walking paths, planting a variety of plants and flowers to attract bees and ensure it is a welcoming and beautiful space. This work couldn't be done without the support of our amazing MCDS maintenance team led by Brooke Pitcher and our school administration.
Looking ahead, what’s next for the food program and for Culinary Farm?
We’ll continue to work to expand the new Upper School Garden space and to connect the food we grow with our students to our lunch program. Feeding our students fresh, healthy, and local organic foods is the goal each and every day. The future of the food program and growing food at MCDS is very bright!
Photo credit: Tim Williams