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Feeding Cultural Curiosity

Exterior photo of Firestone Hall at dusk
Feeding Cultural Curiosity

As Old Trail’s doors open for bleary-eyed students and shuffling parents to begin the day, the AVI Food Services team is already hitting their stride in the kitchen. 

As the aroma of another freshly prepared meal fills the hallways, the sounds of crisp vegetables being chopped, delicious sauces being mixed in bowls and morning banter can be heard. With a daily menu as diverse and enriching as the hundreds of students it serves, the deliberate and thoughtful approach to preparing lunch at Old Trail is anything but ordinary.

At OTS, food is so much more than merely a substance to feed the body. It is a window into another culture and connects us in powerful ways. And for students, it is also the most anticipated social setting of the day, allowing them to laugh, share moments of joy, reflect and talk freely as they savor and enjoy another home-cooked meal. Eating together—whether sitting in the dining room, a camping chair in the front circle or on the Centennial Community Poem Bench—brings us together in meaningful ways.

From Farm to Fork
Unlike most schools, Old Trail benefits greatly from its 11-acre, on-campus farm and its incredible partnership with Countryside, a non-profit organization that is committed to building a thriving local food community by connecting people, food and land in and beyond Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  

Through this innovative collaboration, Countryside grows the produce to meet the needs of the OTS kitchen while using the space as a training ground for their apprentice farmers through an initiative called the “Farm Project.”

It’s possible that no one appreciates this arrangement more than Food Services Director Stefanie Tuma, who works closely with Countryside to coordinate the purchase of seeds for spring plantings, then keeps a close eye on what will be harvested. Through this connection, menu offerings are guided by the vegetables that are available at the time and crops are harvested at their peak condition.

“Produce from our farm looks and tastes so different from items purchased from the store,” Tuma said. “Sometimes the vegetables are oddly shaped or might not look ‘picture perfect,’ but I always tell children, ‘the imperfection of fresh produce makes for a perfect dish.’ Having access to fresh produce gives me the confidence and knowledge that I am giving our students the best-tasting and healthiest options possible.”

Produce harvested from the farm includes garlic, parsley, tomatoes, basil, squash, Brussels sprouts, corn, cucumbers and zucchini, just to name a few. And at the end of the day, leftover scraps are taken back to the farm in the form of compost to help nourish the next harvest— creating a sustainable food system.

Culture and Community
On a particular day during the fall, students were presented with options that could have been found at a typical ramen shop in Tokyo with a station that included soba noodles, teriyaki chicken, sesame tofu, rich broth and toppings of fresh scallions. On the following day, the same station served homemade gyros 
and falafel with fresh tzatziki sauce.

This dramatic daily transformation is typical at Old Trail where lunch offerings are intentionally diverse culturally and challenge children to step outside of their comfort zones with their alluring aromas. By sampling the Korean beef station, a bowl of pho soup or selecting an item from the grilled Mediterranean flat bread bar, students learn that food is a passport to different cultures and parts of the world.

“I believe food has a story and each dish has an important story to share,” Tuma said. “When we understand the history or culture behind a certain dish, we can start to understand the people behind 
that culture. That’s why food is so important. It not only nourishes our bodies, but educates us, shows love 
and brings people together.”

As we reflect on the importance of food at Old Trail, our community is blessed with offerings that are fresh, sustainable and educationally focused.

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