First lady Michelle Obama’s initiative in the White House to get Americans to be healthy and stay fit has not only trickled down to the public, but has also become part of the curriculum in schools and universities.

In Miami two culinary colleges have started campus gardens this year, and while they are centered on different layouts, crops and ambitions, each was grown from the same motive: healthy eating and sustainability.

Johnson and Wales University and Miami-Dade College are using visual and hands-on learning to teach aspiring chefs about eco-friendly cooking.

Johnson and Wales University, College of Culinary Arts

Walking around the campus, one wouldn’t necessarily know that the greenery positioned throughout the parking lot and up the concrete stairs is not landscape, but consists of herbs, vegetables and even some unidentified species. Over a few acres, 90 different varieties are strategically planted for students to get familiar with and identify.

JWU Director of Culinary Operations, Chris Wagner, stopped teaching classes last year to focus on the garden, which was the brainchild of the Dean of Culinary Arts Education, Bruce Ozga.

Wagner explains that a campus garden comes to life from a combination of teacher initiative and student demand. “We do it because A:  it makes sense, and B: the climate here is perfect,” he said.

Wagner, who grew up on a country farm in Germany and has been with JWU for ten years, said it’s helpful for students who don’t know what juniper berries or star fruit look like to see it come from the earth.

On our tour around the building, Wagner pulled a tamarind off a tree and instructed me to take a bite; thus imprinting upon my taste buds and knowledge bank the extreme tartness of this chewy fruit used in Caribbean dishes,  in a way that I wouldn’t have remembered if I’d only been told about it in a classroom.

I learned about custard apple, which has the consistency of crème brûlée, and I was shown wild coffee beans which would take 1,000 of to make a single cup.

Wagner admitted even he was surprised by the way things grew, such as how pomegranate stems have long thorns to protect themselves. When we passed the habaneros, Wagner noted that they are ‘hotter than hell would ever be.’

While JWU has 17 kitchens, three dining rooms, one bar and too many students to be fed from the garden, they do use what is ripe to aid and supply the school.

Keeping in line with sustainability, Wagner’s dream is to have solar panels run the campus. Instead of using gas to cook, he wants induction, which is magnetic cooking where the pot is heated by agitation. To demonstrate, he placed a dollar under the pot and turned it on. Moments later, water was boiling and the dollar was not singed.

Miami Dade College, Miami Culinary Institute (MCI)

The recently inaugurated MCI, where students receive an accredited two year associate degree, teaches students fundamental structures for cooking organically.

The message that Director John Richards instills in his students is that being sustainable must ‘continue in a circle.’

Case in point: the food byproduct generated from cooking goes into a compost system that turns 100 lbs of waste into 18 lbs of compost in 18 hours, which then gets put into the earthworm farm and used in the garden.

“A good chef comes from experience, not accreditation,” says Richards, who is from Kentucky and moved to Miami to head the school. He launched the garden in June to give students and culinary graduates experience that starts at the roots. “We don’t put out chefs, we put out good cooks,” he explained.

The entirely edible and organic garden is a block away from the building in a combination locked, fenced-in area that used to be full of dumpsters, motorcycles and rusty trucks.

The area holds 88 species in different vegetable, herb, greens and flower beds, and is bordered by trees and bushes that carry things like sea grapes, papayas and yellow wild petunias.

Richards’ favorite part of the garden is a single, multi-citrus tree that has limes, oranges and grapefruit on it. Culinary Coordinator Victoria M. Nodarse, who helps the MCI achieve green standards, proved the entire garden is in fact edible when she pointed out a delicate calabaza flower that would be served stuffed with cheese.

The pair has big aspirations for the garden, including getting bee hives for the micro-organic growing experience (JWU wants hives too).  Eventually, students will be issued an iTouch to scan plants which will have barcodes attached to immediately identify them.

While the campus garden, which can seat up to 60, will host soil to soil events and serve as a classroom, MCI will expand to have other lots that will work as farms.  Produce from both garden and farms will go to the university’s ALPHABITE food truck and will be sold to a network of chefs through a website. The Produce will also be used in the kitchen of the eco-friendly, fine dining restaurant slated to open this fall on the building’s 8 th floor under the baton of chef Norman Van Aken.

Richards believes that MCI, which started with 50 students and is gearing to enroll 275 new students next semester, is taking the most advanced steps toward sustainability along the lines of other colleges in the country. “We’re all pioneers in this,” he said.

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