It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon at Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek as guests park off-road and make their way to a long table.
Adorned with a white table cloth and wildflowers, the table is set up on the side of a field full of kale, wildflowers, and other rows of produce.
The occasion for this special (and literal) farm to table dinner is a fundraiser for the Racine Area Youth Farm Corps Program, a branch of the Eco-Justice program.
“We are a sponsored ministry of the Racine Dominicans. Our mission is environmental education in the context of 4 values: community, contemplation, creativity, and cultivation,” explains Sister Rejane Cytacki, executive director of the Eco Justice Center.
“I’m just so excited because I think it’s all about collaboration of different nonprofits working together and it’s been a wonderful relationship with Dave and Sandy. Actually, it started with calling David up to ask for help with our hoop house and that’s how this conversation unfolded about farm to table. We hope to have our Youth Farm Corps to come out here and actually do some work for him in his fields to kind of reciprocate down the road,” she adds.
The Racine Area Youth Farm Corps program employs four high school students to work on the farm, just miles away from Pinehold, for 11 weeks in the summer. A college intern serves as a crew leader and mentor while the students learn the growing process from seed to harvest.
Once their produce is harvested, the students are involved in marketing and learning how to prepare meals with the vegetables in order to help educate the larger community about organic farming, sustainable practices, as well as food justice.
This year’s Youth Farm Corps leader at the Eco Justice center, Laura Buska, says that seeing all of the students’ hard work come to fruition is a special occasion.
“It’s quite an amazing thing to see something grow from a seed all the way to producing it, helping it grow, watering it, harvesting, logging it and selling it to market and sharing it with the community. And to see people enjoy it and nourish them, it’s a pretty amazing thing.”
She also points out that the students she has worked with over the summer have, themselves, experienced tremendous change. “They’re learning a lot this year – seeing changes in diet, trying new things that they’ve never even heard of before, it’s a lot of growth this year, so it’s very exciting,” says Buska.
Dave Kozlowski of Pinehold Gardens has had many farm to table dinners for his CSA members, but this is the first year he has partnered with Eco Justice for a fundraiser. He explains that it's the Youth Farm Corps mission that influenced his decision.
“It is of paramount importance. That’s the next generation. That’s the next generation of farmers, that’s next generation of consumers, next generation of restaurant goers," he says. "So those are the kids, the people that we really need to introduce to this idea because so many of us, myself included being a Boomer, were not connected to farms. We slipped away from where food was made and where it was grown and we need to bring them back in. So what they’re doing with introducing them to nature and food is of paramount importance.”
Youth Farm Corps Program Manager Dawn DeMuyt says that this program shows that youth that are in the cities do not necessarily have to come out to the country to get exposure to agriculture.
"There are some phenomenal things happening across the country in large cities (like) Milwaukee and Detroit where we are bringing farms to the city. We have vacant land, we have opportunities for community gardens...There is a way to expose our children and our youth today to what it means to turn the ground and grow things and have that satisfaction of knowing that we have food security that we can promote within the boundaries of the city."
Devan Ingersoll and Caylan Mason are two of the four high school Eco Justice students who were at the dinner helping to serve the meal.
Ingersoll notes that over 100 pounds of produce used for the meal was donated from the Eco-Justice Center. "Everything coming from it….we have actually grown ourselves, so it’s actually great to see people eat the stuff that we grew." Mason adds that seeing guests come to enjoy a meal with their food is, "a great feeling. I love it.”
Not only did guests dine on produce that the Youth Farm Corps helped to grow, but it was also prepared by the very good hands of six Milwaukee chefs led by chef Karen Bell of Bavette. The full team included Paul and Lisa Zerkel of Goodkind, Justin Aprahamian of Sanford, Greg Leon of Amilinda, and Peter Sandroni of La Merenda and Engine Co. Number 3.
Paul Zerkel and his wife Lisa of Goodkind restaurant in Bay View made a kale and gorgonzola sausage served with sweet corn, cherry tomato, and onion salad for their course. Paul says that when it came to cooking with ingredients grown by local teens, it added something a little extra special to the dish.
“It doesn’t go far from where we already are, but yes, we do try a little harder because we’re trying to not only impress people that have paid for a ticket here, but for the people that actually grow the food. And that always brings a little special part of the heart out,” he says.
Goodkind is no stranger to using fresh local and seasonal ingredients in their restaurant. Zerkel notes that in today’s cuisine culture, “farm to table” is to be expected.
“You kind of get a sense that it’s just inevitable that this is happening. You don’t really hear about farm to table anymore, restaurants are just assumed that they do that. And the quality restaurants in Milwaukee are just kind of assumed that it’s what they do," he notes. "And I’m glad it’s gotten to that point...It’s more and more available so there’s really no excuse not to use it. You can order your stuff on Amazon, or you can walk down the street and mingle and walk through a market like they do in the rest of the world.”
While Milwaukee may be getting closer to the rest of the world in terms of shopping local and fresh, dinner guest Gordon Kacala says that these farm to table fundraisers are an experience not to be taken for granted.
"It’s really nice to get together with people from the community and spend time from a communal perspective together, sharing food, sharing a couple drinks together, and just getting to know each other more. And this is kind of special to us because these folks have kind of mentored us from time to time in terms of some of the things we’ve planted in our own garden. So it’s really great to come here and support them.”
His wife, Rita Kacala says that it is inspiring to see the impact just four students can have in the world of community agriculture.
“The Farm Corps is a fun program because you maybe only have four kids a part of it, but who are they touching and who is it going out to?" she notes. "Kids need to know where our food is coming from, instead of just going to the grocery store and buying things that are made somewhere else or covered in who knows what. So I think it’s a great program and this just brings it all home and brings the circle to a close.”