It’s a classic win-win relationship: North Florida School of Special Education (NFSSE) was in need of a full-sized commercial kitchen and the opportunity it would provide to its students who are learning culinary skills to get real-world job experience, while the Arc Jacksonville Village residential home for adults with developmental disabilities was struggling with operating an onsite foodservice in a fiscally manageable way.
Now, students from NFSSE use the kitchen at Arc Village to hone their skills while preparing dinners five days a week for the more than 120 residents of the community, plus their families and visitors.
NFSSE’s partnership with Arc Village developed from the latter’s determination to provide its residents—intellectually disabled young adults who live semi-independently in apartments at the facility—an onsite evening meal option.
The initiative, with meals prepared in Arc’s fully equipped commercial kitchen, was somewhat successful over its first year but “they were starting to see a real decline in the number of people buying their meals, which cost $8.50 to $9.00,” says Sally Hazelip, executive director of NFSSE who is also very involved with Arc Village as a number of former NFSSE students now reside there.
“The cool thing about it is that because we are a 501(c)(3), we’re able to subsidize how much it costs,” she explains, “so the residents can now buy a really healthy meal on the meal plan for $5 a meal, or $6 if they buy it individually. There’s really nowhere in our community where you can get what we’re serving them for that price.”
The partnership launched in early June as the Berry Good Farms Café. It is overseen by a professional manager and assistant manager who work with students in the afternoons to prepare an evening meal.
However, come August and the start of school at NFSSE, “we will be incorporating a culinary school during the day at Arc Village for students who are 18 or older,” Hazelip says. “It allows us to open up our culinary school—and culinary is a very popular program—in a much bigger way for people with disabilities in the community.”
Arc Village will be considered a job site for the students, who will receive transport in vans from the school to the facility, located about eight miles from NFSSE.
The meals prepared by NFSSE students at Arc Village often incorporate fresh produce from NFSSE’s own Berry Good Farms onsite garden and is designed to conform to the motto, “Healthy, Beautiful and Delicious.”
“Our philosophy was to reduce the price and make it healthy, beautiful and delicious, and also to develop a community so that when [residents] come out in the evening [to eat], they come to the dining hall,” Hazelip offers.
The goal is to get between 50 and 60 of the residents per evening, which is about half of Arc’s resident population of 120. As the arrangement with NFSSE only began in early June, the initiative is still in its early stages but is slowly building buzz. A recent family night drew 50 diners, but most evenings have averaged around 40.
Plans call for Arc Village family nights to eventually get NFSSE’s food truck once a month as well, she adds. Now in its third year, the truck, called Berry Good Farms On the Go, has until the recent arrangement with Arc Village been the only outlet for NFSSE students to serve outside customers with the food they’ve prepared, such as healthy wraps, soups and salads.
The food truck visits a number of business sites several times a week and also is available for catering community events, generating as many as a hundred transactions on a good day. It also dispenses fresh vegetables grown in NFSSE’s garden to economically disadvantaged individuals, who can use SNAP and EBT cards to get discounts on the purchases.
The truck has partnered with mobile clinics from Baptist and St. Vincent hospitals to go into local food deserts where hospital dietitians give demonstrations on how to prepare the vegetables being dispensed.
Hazelip says the availability of Arc Village’s commercial kitchen will help expand the food truck’s business as more students will now be able to join in preparing the food with which it is stocked. Previously, the work had to be done in NFSSE’s small teaching kitchen, though a capital campaign is underway to eventually build a full commercial kitchen there that will serve the school community.
NFSSE already operates the Berry Good Farms garden and greenhouse on school property that is part of its Berry Good Farms culinary program, along with the food truck.
The crop cultivation program, launched five years ago, began as a few rows of crops to serve as a small school garden, but soon was expanded to a more robust scale that included not just the 30 x 60-ft. greenhouse but vertical grow poles, hydroponics and even aquaponics.
“It just went hand in hand with our science curriculum, so all our students participate in the garden, but the majority of the work of cultivating and planting is done with our transition students, ages 18 to 22,” Hazelip explains. “They’re the ones we really work on to get them pre-employment skills and getting them out to the community, so the garden, the food truck and our culinary program are all vocational training based.”
It didn’t take long to marry the bounty from the garden with the kitchen activities of the culinary program, which in turn led to the food truck and now the relationship with Arc Village.
“There’s been a lot of collaboration with Arc and what we’ve really appreciated is that we have the students and the culinary people rich in experience in working with our kids, and now we have a location that can really make a difference,” Hazelip summarizes.