Morse High School students learn culinary class

SAN DIEGO (KUSI) — The Hungry Tiger restaurant is part of Morse High School in Southeast San Diego. And it’s moving into a new kitchen that’s filled with professional equipment.

The people who’ll be working here aren’t exactly professionals. They’re high-school kids. But they cater school events and make lots of the school’s signature snack, the Tiger Muffin.

Some, like senior Daisy Damas, have dreams of becoming great cooks.

“I’ve always been interested in cooking,” she said. “It’s just like a passion of mine. All of my problems go away when I’m there in the kitchen.”

The Hungry Tiger is part of Morse High’s culinary arts program, which is an academic experiment meant to improve diets and fight obesity. The program at Morse is run by a professional caterer and high-school teacher, named Sara Piatt.

She is an animated woman in middle age. Piatt spoke in her old kitchen classroom, soon to be abandoned, that’s covered with tacky wallboard and worn carpeting. She said she’s determined to introduce her students to real food.

“It was really fun today,” she said, “like with the basil… So many kids are like, ‘I’m not going to eat that. It’s green!’ Then they try it and they really like it!”

Piatt doesn’t just have a new kitchen to work with. Morse High School also has a something she considers crucial to understanding food and its preparation: A garden.

On a small patch of ground adjacent to the front gate, workers from the Urban Corps of San Diego have installed raised beds and an irrigation system.

The Urban Corps focuses on conservation projects that green the environment. Eric Wolff, the group’s assistant director, said they had planted several trees on the Morse High campus when they heard of the school’s vision for growing their own food.

“They said that Morse High School really wanted a garden,” said Wolff. “They were building a restaurant that was going to cook food for students and by the students. They were going to run every aspect of the restaurant, and they’d like to get a source of fresh food.”

He says nearly everything they’re planting is edible.

“So we’re going to be planting some trees, a lot of herbs for the school, a lot of vegetables, lot of fresh fruit,” said Wolff.

Sara Piatt said the garden allows her to cultivate an appreciation for food and where it comes from, and that important for city kids.

“These students have no connection to where their food comes from. If you say chicken soup, they think it comes from a can. I grew up in Iowa where you grew things, where you saw it, where you harvested it. And they have no idea.”

Morse High draws its students from the low-income neighborhoods that surround Skyline Drive. Obesity is a huge problem among these kids, so the food they eat is also a huge issue. That’s why fresh fruits and vegetables are at the center of what’s called the farm-to-table movement.

This movement is a growing trend among schools. Top chef Alice Waters has formed a partnership with the Berkeley School District to bring more fresh local food onto their menus.

Another vision for what some people call “food literacy” is taking shape in the San Diego home of a woman who’s spent her entire career trying to get people eat right and lose weight.

Deborah Szekely is founder of the high-end health spa called Rancho La Puerta, located in Tecate, Mexico. At the age of 89 she remains vital and active. And lately she’s tried to use her influence to bring food literacy to schools.

She said her vision has one very important element.

“It’s the gardens. The key is that they grow it themselves,” she said.

Szekely has lobbied Congress to provide money for a pilot program, focusing on fifth grade. It would create a food literacy program that includes gardening, cooking and digestive science.

“Every school should have a community garden,” said Szekely. “San Diego now has a food bus, in one of the schools, which I haven’t seen but I’m looking forward to it”

San Diego Unified School District has hired a “farm-to-school” coordinator to work with local farms to try to achieve the same goal. The coordinator, Vanessa Zajfen, was asked why it was important to offered fresh fruits and vegetables to schools kids.

She said, “Because it tastes good.”

Categories: Good Morning San Diego