Casita’s School Garden Innovation
October 01st, 2019
This week we’re celebrating Farm to School hero Jackson Perez at Casita Center for Science, Math & Technology. Mr. Perez embodies all three F2S areas of focus — he engages students in hands-on learning through gardening; facilitates educational activities related to agriculture, food, health and nutrition; and he procures local food, a goal he will achieve this year by growing enough food in the school garden to supply his cooking classes. In short, he is creating Casita’s very own farm-to-table program!
A ten year veteran of Vista Unified School District, Mr. Perez has held a number of roles since his start as a 3rd Grade Teacher at Foothill Oaks Elementary School. His current capacity as Lab Specialist was originally focused on computer, environmental, and kitchen science, but it’s evolved over the past four years to include video production and gardening. He sees each K-3 class every other week for an hour, and each 4/5 class every third week for 2 hours — which means he has the potential to regularly interact with every student at the school.
Holding the unofficial title of “Farm to Fork Teacher” is no easy task, and the work that it took to carve out a program like this was anything but easy. The space where Mr. Perez now conducts his kitchen labs was formerly the faculty lounge. A supportive PTA and creativity led to much needed renovations like the replacement of carpet with vinyl flooring and the installation of stainless steel counters, basin sinks and a much larger oven. This year, a $15,000 grant from Sage Garden Project has allowed him to expand his culinary equipment and consult with a garden education specialist.
The idea for the kitchen lab grew from his personal passion for cooking, something that grew out of experiences in the kitchen with his father and grandmother. When asked why he thinks this type of education is important, Mr. Perez says, “The biggest thing for me is teaching students how to be self-sufficient, how to take care of themselves and work hard.” He acknowledges the growth of the restaurant business in San Diego and the availability of careers in agriculture and environmental sciences, and wants students to see those fields as potential career choices.
In addition to teaching practical skills like cooking and gardening, Mr. Perez’s class also promotes character building. “Through food and cooking, I’m trying to help students understand our and other cultures a little better,” he told me. Social science is frequently tied into the recipes the class tackles — the laborious task of making salsa in molcajetes prior to acquiring a food processor is one comedic example. Tolerance is a big part of his classes as well, and Mr. Perez is constantly asking his students to explore the food of people around the world and question their assumptions about dietary traditions. Each December at Maker Night — an annual event where students practice their engineering skills by building items like ornaments — he hosts a “make and take” cooking activity that has included recipes from around the world. Last year’s dish was lumpia — a savory treat from the Philippines that is similar to an egg-roll.
After glancing over an entire wall that is covered with past recipes, it becomes readily apparent that Mr. Perez is passionate about connecting kids to food. Dishes like sushi and tamales are more than most would dare to attempt with 34 nine-year-olds, but that’s the kind of commitment he brings to his curriculum. And it’s duly appreciated by the students — Veronica, a fourth-grader in one of Mr. Perez’s classes, enthusiastically exclaimed “I like to cook with my Dad, but there’s not always time at home, so I love that we get to cook with Mr. Perez at school.” One of the goals of Farm to School is to enrich the connection students have with fresh, healthy food. If the enthusiasm of his students is any indication, Mr. Perez is well on his way to achieving that vision.