Gifft Hill Fundraiser Offers Meals Sustainably Sourced, Seasoned, and Served

Living lessons in sustainable meal production lead to Saturday’s Farm-to-Table dinner at Gifft Hill School; Gifft Hill School Head of School Liz Kinsella, Gifft Hill School Culinary Arts Teacher LaShonda Boodoo, EARTH Farming Program. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

High School students at St. John’s Gifft Hill School spent some of their classroom time promoting sustainability for patrons of a weekend fundraising dinner. A school administrator said their efforts are an integral part of Saturday’s farm-to-table dinner, a semi-annual event that’s sold out in advance.

The first GHS benefit event was seen in 2022, transforming the efforts of teachers, parents, school staff and students into a dining experience. Culinary arts teacher LaShanda Boodoo said Saturday’s menu differs from past offerings.

“This menu, this weekend, is all going to be Southern comforts, so they’re doing a lot of Cajun spices, a lot of smoked paprika in our seasoning blends. They’re trying gumbo, both vegetarian and the meat versions,” Boodoo said.

“So, this is a first time; usually we do a lot of Caribbean-centric themes. This is the first time we’re doing a Southern comfort theme, so we’re going to be doing shrimp and grits, some Creole snapper … it’s going to be great,” she said.

For student participants like ninth-grader Kennya Estrado, the farm-to-table dinner is an extension of their classroom instruction. Those in the cooking class work on perfecting their Creole seasoning spice blends to be used in southern comforts gumbo or shrimp and grits. They represent the back-of-the-house restaurant staff.

Estrado and others perform front-of-the-house duties, like ironing tablecloths and serving meals. “We started on Monday. We learned how to set tables and a lot of fine dining skills, and I’m doing these linens for tablecloths. I didn’t really think about these until now. I feel bad for all the restaurants that have to deal with this,” she said.

In the room where tablecloths are pressed, there are also crystal bowls for centerpieces and other items used to set the table. High school students on St. Thomas and St. John public schools receive similar instruction in some classes, but Boodoo says her students also learn what makes the food-to-table culinary art distinct.

“ … the kids this week through a mini-mester went over to Hull Bay, to Hull Bay Hideaway where they have a little farm-to-table, and they learned about how they grow the foods that they use in their restaurant,” the cooking teacher said.

“(With) regular culinary arts, you’re sourcing things from all over the world, and we do a combination, so ours isn’t true farm-to-table; it’s a combination of things that we can source locally and things that we bring in from other sources,” Boodoo said.

In the day before GHS farm-to-table sold all of its tickets for this event, Head of School Liz Kinsella enticed the public with sustainable temptations. “Enjoy dishes from our culinary class students who showcase fresh, seasonal produce grown in our school gardens and ethically, sustainably sourced local proteins on the menu.”

Teachers at Gifft Hill began showing students how to grow their own since 2009 through the EARTH Farming Program in conjunction with Iowa State University. GHS Office Manager Mary Burks leads a visitor on a tour of crop sites, including a terrace garden built by students and the Gifft Hill greenhouse.

Culinary arts in motion at Gifft Hill School; Mary Burks shows off the school’s terrace garden. (Photo by Judi Shimel)

Students still play a role in growing and maintaining herbs and vegetables, Burks said. “It’s always a class; there’s always at least one class plus an elective and some dedicated teachers,” she said.

Those years of combined effort, she added, have made a difference in the way students view and value food. “I think they really understand sustainability. I think our kids eat healthy; you don’t see junk around here. Yeah, I think it has influenced them,” Burks said.