By Debbonnaire Kovacs, Sept. 2, 2015     [Author’s note: You can also see more exciting news about OJA students in our Poetry & Arts department this month!]

Orlando Junior Academy is about to open a whole new era in academy learning, with the creation of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Kitchen House and Culinary Garden. In planning for years, the center is now under construction, and slated to open in the spring of 2016. The state-of-the-art 3,000-foot facility will be environmentally sustainable and include four cooking stations, to be used for OJA’s Nutritional Science Lab, as well as a large veranda opening onto the garden. In the entryway, there will also be a reception area and a store where students can sell products they make, such as jams and pickles.

The garden makes this a particularly exciting concept. Not only will students learn to prepare healthy food, they’ll grow it, so they’ll have a chance to learn about using what is in season and available, and what to do if a particular crop fails.

The dream began some years ago, when Chef Kevin Fonzo, owner and chef of K Restaurant in College Park, Florida, began providing healthy lunches to the school’s 200 or so students. That led to an “edible schoolyard” project and a cooking class. Fonzo now teaches a full day of classes each week.

What used to be called (in the good old days) Home Economics, a one or two semester class to help girls be “good wives”—or at least that’s how we perceived it—became a staple of integrated curriculum at OJA. They have a program called Edible Education Experience, or E3, with its own committee, who work to integrate the school curriculum into cooking and gardening, with the hope that these will all be integrated into the students’ future lives and values.

Janice Banks, volunteer coordinator, was quoted in a message from Florida Hospital Media Relations as saying, “The Edible Education Committee has been working for more than four years and recognizes God’s abundant provisions in inspiring partners to co-create this concept and we’re excited about the long-lasting benefits we’ll bring to Orlando’s children and their families.”

On the school website right now, you can read a story of one class’ experiment in growing tomatoes, beautifully written by one of the fifth-graders themselves, a girl named Danielle C. It’s called “Little Bites of Goodness.”

Danielle says, “We enjoy planting our own produce. Right now, we are growing tomatoes in Mrs. Farfan’s spectacular fifth grade class. Our little seedlings have grown into beautiful, ripe little bundles of juiciness.” She goes on to describe how the class used math and science to create their garden and grow their tomatoes.

On October 22, 2014, students, who had already learned to enjoy getting their hands dirty, got to grab shovels and help to break ground for the new Kitchen House. It is supported not only by the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, but also by Florida Hospital for Children, HuntonBrady Architects and Midtown Architecture Studio, TLC Engineering, Allan & Conrad, Poulos & Bennett, Davis & Associates, and Brasfield & Gorrie.

When the facility is complete, classes will be taught by Chef Fonzo and Sarah Cahill, certified raw food chef.

According to Edible Orlando and Florida Focus, reprinted in NAD Newspoints [see link below], construction will soon be underway. I was unable to reach OJA for an update.

Learn more and see lots of great photos at these sites: