Old Trail School is an independent day school in Bath, Ohio, that enrolls around 500 youngsters from grades K through 8. Among the values taught at the school is an appreciation for the environment and for living a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.
A key cog in getting that message across is Jay Williams, whose primary role is to serve as executive chef of the school’s dining operation for contract firm Metz Culinary Services. But Williams has also recently extended his participation in the school’s life to include teaching a culinary class to 7th and 8th graders.
The class is a formal elective part of the curriculum with 11 students, and Williams also conducts an afterschool session for another 14 students on a more informal basis.
The classes deal primarily with the basics of culinary, “so once they get out on their own they can take care of themselves,” he says.
The course was first offered in the second half of the 2016-2017 school year when it was still winter but then took a step away from the kitchen and into the field when the weather began to warm.
And the field is not far away as Old Trail sits in the midst of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and its extensive woodlands. The school also has a four-acre farm right next door.
“One spring day the weather was nice, so I took the class out foraging as a way to tie it to sustainability and the other things we focus on here,” Williams says. “We talked about sourcing of ingredients and that sort of thing.”
In one of the early foraging sessions, Williams actually took the kitchen to the field.
“I actually set up a burner out in the fields and a little table near where we found ramps. We harvested them out of the ground, washed them and sautéed them so the students could try them.”
Other spring crops that found their way to the classroom from the foraging expeditions included dandelion greens, violets, apple blossoms and fiddlehead ferns.
In the school lunch program, Williams tries to balance kid appeal with healthy choices.
“We try to get in all the local, healthy kind of good foods the parents want to see but that kids will also want to eat,” Williams observes.
He cites build-it-yourself platforms like taco and pasta bars as being particularly successful in achieving this balance because he is able to use healthy ingredients on the bars while still giving his young customers the freedom to make their own choices.
The taco bar, for example, incorporates ground turkey meat and freshly prepared guacamole and salsa.
“We try to take concepts they are familiar with and make them our own,” Williams says.
Another challenge is the makeup of the student body, as food preferences tend to vary by age.
“I always have two entrée selections each day along with a starch and vegetable plus a lot of a la carte options, so everybody can find something to eat,” he notes. “And if I know I have a menu item the older kids will be more prone to get and the younger ones won’t, then I’ll balance it with something the younger kids will definitely be interested in.”