PALMER — “Do you smell that?” Chef Chris Pavadore, sustainability director of Dining Services at Alaska Pacific University says, adding ingredients to a hot skillet.
“I smell butter,” says a boy in the back of the room at Louise’s Farm School.
He’s one of 50 or so home-school students enrolled in supplemental classes through the school at Spring Creek Farm, an APU satellite campus near Palmer.
“What do you grow at home? What do you cook at home?” Farm School coordinator Megan Rock asked students in the Magpie and Chickadee class Oct 23. The Magpie and Chickadee classes, for students ages 5 to 7 years old, spent the past 13 weeks growing, picking, cooking and preserving their own food.
The class culminated in a savory way with Chef Pavadore preparing a pot of soup using pumpkins, onions and garlic from local farms. The event was part of the school’s celebration of National Food Day, Oct. 24.
“There’s a lot of cutting,” one student observed as the chef smashed and then diced a few cloves of garlic and added them to the onion and butter already sizzling in the skillet.
Rock contrasted the ingredients in that pot of pumpkin soup with an earlier lesson about where pizza comes from. Almost all of that food came from a warehouse, she said.
“This pumpkin came from down the road,” Rock said. “We could walk to the farm where this pumpkin is from. This food is all from our neighborhood.”
The onions and the pumpkin in the soup both came from Sun Circle Farm, Rock said.
“All of you have been to that farm,” she told students.
Students in the Magpie and Chickadee class drew pictures and sang a few songs while Chef Pavadore’s pumpkin soup simmered.
This is the sixth year Louise’s Farm School has paired state standards with farm focused hands-on learning for home-schooled children ages 5 to 13 years old. Rock said the school six classes for three age groups.
Before her death in 2001, Louise Kellogg left her 800-acre Spring Creek Farm to APU in trust to be used to preserve outdoor and agriculture education.
Pavadore said this is the first year he’s also used produce from the farm in the kitchen at the university in Anchorage. He runs a farmers market on the APU campus year-round from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays. Anything that isn’t sold at the market is absorbed into the APU kitchen, he said.
So far, he said he’s saved quite a bit of money by buying local food. Pavadore said he’s still trying to figure out how much of some veggies, like broccoli, he used this year and what he’d like to order for next year.
Building a network between farmers and his kitchen has taken a lot of work. But Pavadore said he considers it a labor of love.
“It’s a lot of work, but work that’s long overdue,” he said.
Besides saving money, Chef Pavadore said the change has had other unforeseen benefits.
“I get a lot more compliments now,” he said. “What we have shipped in is not the same as the fresh stuff. You can’t beat the flavor.”
Though the ages of their students are very different, Rock and Pavadore see the same advantages to serving local food.
“The benefit really is the quality of the food,” Pavadore said. “There’s no going back.”
Rock asks her students why people might choose to grow their own food, even though it takes extra effort.
“It makes better food,” students reply. “It tastes better and has more vitamins.”
When the soup’s done simmering, it’s dished into mugs to cool before serving.
“It’s yummy,” says one student.
“I love it,” says another.
According to a recent survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School program, more than 38,000 schools with 21 million students served more than $350 million in healthy local food last year.
In the Valley, there are 34 schools participating in the Farm to School program. Statewide, the survey estimates that $75,919 was spent buying food grown in Alaska.