A lesson in pride of place

FSDs can learn from students’ passion for their homegrown cafe.

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Sustainability is such a priority for Santa Rosa Junior College’s culinary arts program that produce often doesn’t even hit the cooler before becoming a meal. Students quickly transform the bounty of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and more, harvested from the college’s own farm, into restaurant-quality dishes at the Culinary Cafe and Bakery. They learn the basics of agriculture, practice pivoting a menu based on seasonality, and compost as they cook.

It’s little wonder the program recently placed first in the CAFE/Kendall College Green Awards: This Northern California community college is capitalizing on its Sonoma County location to deepen its commitment to sustainability in innovative ways. “It’s a deep and integrative program,” says Jim Cason, culinary program coordinator at the college.

Most notable is the collaboration with Shone Farm, the college’s own 365-acre farm located in the Russian River Valley. Agriculture & Natural Resources students operate a 12-acre produce garden on-site, from which the culinary arts program regularly sources at least half of its produce—and usually much more. Products often include lettuce, tomatoes, olives, corn and even wine using grapes from Shone Farm’s vineyards. Beyond that, Sonoma County’s three-season climate even allows year-round production for items like onions, garlic, carrots and green squash.

All of this produce goes straight to both the culinary classes, as well as the student-run, full-service Culinary Cafe. (The college’s main foodservice contractor has a separate purchasing policy, though Cason notes it does source ground beef for hamburgers from Shone Farm.) Everything is so fresh it often arrives covered in dirt and bugs, providing instructors the chance to teach students about agriculture and pest problems. It also allows them to get creative. “We try to outdo each other,” Cason says, explaining that he gives the program’s purchaser “gentle” guidelines to buy the best products. He can adjust the menu based off her haul.

Sometimes, though, the climate can make seasonal cooking tricky. Cason says California’s recent drought drove up the prices of meat and dairy, a challenge for the baking classes that rely on butter and eggs. Proceeds from the Culinary Cafe help manage situations like that, he says, as well as partnerships with a local co-op of about 20 to 30 farms, some of which are run by former SRJC students.

Despite the emphasis on local sourcing, you won’t find a laundry list of farms on the cafe’s menu. “It kind of gets like white noise after a while,” Cason says. Instead, a short blurb on the back of the menus describes the program’s partnerships, and students, who work as servers and cooks, can give a more in-depth tableside description.

SRJC’s focus on sustainability doesn’t stop there. Students collect compost for Shone Farm workers to pick up a couple times a week; the culinary arts building boasts solar panels; and the program uses fallen oak trees on campus to fuel its wood-burning pizza oven. It all fits in nicely on a campus dotted with bike repair stops and water stations.

“We’re typical Northern Californians,” Cason says. “We’re always looking for a reuse or a recycle. It’s just kind of ingrained into the program.” 

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