Chef Mike Erickson, head of the culinary arts department at Connally High School, sees first hand the lack of education most students have about food and proper nutrition. And after spending seven years teaching culinary arts at the collegiate level, he came to PISD in 2008 with plans to build a very effective program at CHS.
“I visited a lot of the top culinary programs in Central Texas because I wanted to be the best,” Chef Mike said. “And this year I think we have the chance to be the best. I wish I had a school and a program like this when I was deciding on which career I was going to go into. These students will graduate with a certificate from the state with a food handler’s card and about a $30,000 to $40,000 education.”
The culinary program at CHS has become a finely tuned machine that is gaining recognition from programs all over the country. Now Chef Mike is ready to take a new step for the program, for the school, and hopefully for the entire community of PISD.
Ground has already been broken on a working garden in front of CHS, a project that will serve many purposes for students across the school. Students in the after school environmental club will help with soil analysis, biology classes will grow seeds into seedlings under lamps in the lab, and all of the culinary arts students will have a hand in maintaining the new garden which will bring multiple crops of vegetables and plenty of herbs and spices.
“The education these kids will gain is invaluable,” Chef Mike said. “Not only learning how plants grow, but also seeing how easy it is to grow great food that tastes really good. There are also great lessons to learn about this area’s history and the farmers who created this community.”
Chef Mike hopes to name the garden after a local farmer who helped the Pflugerville area become what it is today.
One of the most impressive storylines in this project is the fact that none of the funding came out of the district or school budget. Chef Mike and his students wanted a garden, so they went out and asked. So far they have received a grant and a large amount of materials from local construction companies and businesses. A local student is even putting his time, money and sweat into the garden as part of his Eagle Scout project.
Chef Mike is hopeful his garden will be a jumping off point for other school gardens, and eventually community gardens.
“I want the kids to understand what is lost when they don’t have fresh food, and what is gained from community working together,” he said. “That’s where the community can help out. I’d like this to be a community DIY (do it yourself) project where businesses and people in the community will see the need and step up to help out.”
Chef Mike is expecting it to take time for the garden to produce, but once it does there will be a large harvest meal with the fruits of their labor. Hopefully it will be tasty enough to drive home the message to the students who worked hard to make it happen. Fresh food is worth the work, both at the table and for a life time.
For those interested in helping out with the CHS garden contact Chef Mike Erickson by email.