Nine years ago, Chef Kevin Fonzo spent his mornings preparing healthy lunches for 80 Orlando Junior Academy (OJA) students inside the kitchen of his College Park restaurant. He would pack up the meal, shuttle it to the school, and distribute it to the students each afternoon.
Now, he is a staple in the classroom as part of the school’s Edible Education Experience, which takes place every Thursday during the first and third semesters for students in fifth through eighth grades. Fonzo says the school’s highest attendance rates have been on Thursdays because the kids don’t want to miss the class.
Lessons include the nutrition behind food taught by Sarah Cahill; growing fruits, vegetables and herbs by gardener Brad Jones; and techniques of cooking by Fonzo. All the while, they are integrating regular school curriculum like math, science and social studies into the lesson plan.
As the Edible Education Experience gained popularity with OJA students, celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse visited Orlando to film a segment of his show, “Emeril’s Florida” with Fonzo at K Restaurant. While Lagasse was there, he learned about Fonzo’s work with the program and stopped by OJA to see it for himself. The two chefs eventually formed a partnership that led to the creation of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Kitchen House and Culinary Garden at OJA.
“Emeril kind of gave us a shot in the arm to get it going,” Fonzo says.
The project is a joint partnership between Florida Hospital for Children, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation and OJA.
Currently, the Edible Education Experience is taught in a regular classroom setting, and the students cook on butane burners. The supplies are stored in a small cabinet near the girl’s restroom. But when students return from summer break in August, the kitchen house and culinary garden should be open for business.
The new space will include professional stovetops and ovens, proper prep tables, hot running water and dish machines. A catwalk on the second floor will give visitors a glimpse inside the kitchen. The students will be able to harvest ingredients from the garden, cook the meal planned for them, and then they can proceed to the porch to eat their lesson.
The students have heard their teachers talking about the new space for a long time, and they’re finally starting to see it come to life.
“It’s hard for a child to imagine from a picture what it can be,” Fonzo says. “Now that they see this, they’re chomping at the bit to get in here. They know it’s going to be amplified as far as what they can do and what they can learn.”
The goal is to get the program into other schools and the first step is starting local. That’s where the Kevin Fonzo Foundation comes in. It works with teachers to bring the project to their classrooms and to keep it going. In addition, it can fund buses for field trips so children from lower-income areas can visit OJA’s garden.
Fonzo says, “I believe every child should experience this.”