Pandemic Forces Monomoy Culinary Arts Program To Get Creative

By: Elizabeth Van Wye

Culinary arts students with the school's outdoor grill. COURTESY PHOTO

If you walk the bike trail past Monomoy High School on a school day, you might see high school students out in the school's garden, hard at work and practicing the basics of grilling. With the pandemic forcing adjustment in many school activities, Caroline Freitas, the school's culinary arts and nutrition teacher, has come up with an ingenious way of advancing her hands-on curriculum in a safe outdoor environment.

Students at Monomoy High School are required to take an elective in the wellness department each year. Culinary arts is one of the choices; the others include programs in health and physical education, peer leadership and serving as Best Buddies for students with special needs.

"We are trying to emphasize wellness on a lot of levels," Freitas said.

Last spring, Freitas, as part of her professional development, wanted to take a course in nutrition offered by Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute. She was awarded a scholarship to attend the course by the local chapter of the American Culinary Foundation, only to learn that due to the pandemic, the course was canceled. When she asked the Foundation whether she could redirect the scholarship money to a program for her students, she was advised to keep the award for a future course and the ACF awarded an additional $500 for her to use with her students.

"We spent the money on a grill, bought locally, and a heavy duty mitt and grilling utensils," she recalled recently. And although there are many ways to cook outdoors, including smoking, she decided to start with grilling. "The outdoor piece was really great," Freitas said. "It was an offset to academic demands and it got them outside and unplugged."

The grill is set up in the garden area of the school. There are 10 raised beds that are normally tended to and used by students and teachers. A garden shed provides a storage area for the grill when not in use. With food and cooking together in one place, the location is now a garden kitchen classroom.

Most kids had minimal experience with grilling, Freitas said, so an early attempt was grilled bread sticks, for which they had to make special forms. After making the dough, a 12-inch dowel was wrapped in aluminum and strips of the dough were wrapped around the dowel and grilled. The result, Freitas said, was "slathered with herb butter," and a big success. "They were curlicued and looked cool," she said. "We thought they were trend setting!"

Pizza was another success story. Starting with direct heat to crisp the crust, the pizza shell was moved to indirect heat for adding cheese and other toppings.

Although they had hoped to use ingredients from the school garden for their project, "the growing season was basically a bust," Freitas said, adding that they couldn't even access the campus for several months in the spring. The fact that it was a difficult year in the garden helped them to "appreciate the challenges that farmers face. It teaches resilience and perseverance," she said. "Just because it didn't produce food this year, we are not giving up on it."

Students who had opted to attend school in person continued to use the indoor kitchen at the school in addition to grilling outdoors. However, with the obligatory six feet of social distance, instead of the usual number of up to 18 students in class Freitas now had at most eight at any one time in class. There was a positive aspect to that, she added. "It was more one on one."

Other changes to her curriculum were necessitated by the pandemic. For those who opted for the hybrid attendance model of two days in, one day out, which represented a majority of the students, there was a written assignment given for the day out. Topics might include sustainability of various fish species, listening to podcasts about cranberry farming or other local food products or researching mindfulness when eating. "They have a lot of choices," Freitas added, noting that students could choose three out of six topics for further study.

For students learning 100 percent remotely, cooking at home and documenting the results made for a creative challenge matched to the resources that each student had access to at home. Some of the meals included breakfast sandwiches, avocado toast and pasta with fresh tomato sauce.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many changes for everyone. But for teachers like Freitas, creative problem solving and innovation has resulted in new and exciting possibilities. "It's challenging," Freitas said, "but that's what we do."