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On a crisp, fall Monday morning, nearly 20 students from Orange High School walked into award winning restaurant, Panciuto, which is tucked away in Hillsborough’s quaint downtown.

Panciuto, a well known Italian-influenced restaurant, is the brainchild of Aaron Vandemark. Aaron has been nominated for numerous awards — including Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation — yet he remains humble, grounded in his craft and his community.

Aaron was a panelist at the inaugural Carolina Food Summit on the topic of using food-based businesses to help create momentum for small towns in the South. The title would not lead you to believe that the speakers would touch on education, yet virtually each of the panelists addressed the dual role of food and school systems in turning around the future fate of towns across North Carolina.

Inez Ribustello, one of our everyday heroes from Tarboro, spoke to the need for our students to make choices: 

“When given the choice to be right or be kind, be kind.”

She addressed the role of restaurants in stewarding good food habits into our school system, combating hunger through solutions, and playing a role in boosting achievement for each of our students.

Aaron spoke next. He spoke to the role of his restaurant in Hillsborough, but he also turned to the topic of a restaurant’s role within the nexus of education and food. He shared that he had met with different people within the school nutrition system about his desire to make a difference, yet it was hard for him to find traction.

As Aaron and the panelists went through their discussion, a yellow school bus crested the hill in the distance. The bus carried the students and teachers from Orange High who would make the five minute trip to Panciuto a few weeks later.

Shannon Braxton, a Career and Technical Education instructor, works to teach her students about the joy of food, while also providing real world skills that could serve them either in the home or a career. She spoke for a few minutes at the summit after Aaron, Inez, and the rest of the reanimating the rural south panel left the stage.

Shannon told the Carolina Food Summit, “We used to be known as home ec — but we’re so much more than that now.”

Her students addressed what they had learned about food, agriculture, and nutrition. Yet it was innovating school lunch that animated them the most. 

Aaron watched this discussion from the side of the barn where the Summit was held, and after the students walked out he and Shannon exchanged cards, promising to find a way to work together.

Which led us to Panciuto on a Monday morning.

Empowering students to lead change

The students split into two groups upon entering the restaurant. Each of the groups alternated between a discussion with Aaron at the communal table in the dining room and a tour of the kitchen which also led to them assisting Aaron’s staff with meal prep.

At the summit, Pitmaster Sam Jones of Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ said,

“Education can happen in the classroom or at the cash register.”

The students were shocked to learn that Aaron develops his own recipes. They didn’t realize that he goes out to farms and farmer markets, meets with the farmers, and then makes decisions about the menu. “Our menu comes from our mind,” he declared.

When it was time to re-imagine school lunch, the students had ideas:

“Find some simple ways to generate more flavor.”

“We need more meat. A pork chop would be nice.”

“I want to be able to eat throughout the day. I’m still growing. Could we do snacks?”

“The biggest change I could imagine would be providing more variety.”

Aaron and Shannon pushed them to develop pilot projects, with Aaron promising that Panciuto would serve as a partner in the process.

As the weeks unfold, we will begin to hear how these student-driven pilots unfold. Particularly now that they know adults are listening.

Why the Carolina Food Summit?

The birth of the Carolina Food Summit began in 2013 when our CEO, Mebane Rash, and myself were part of the Z. Smith Reynolds Community Leadership Council. The ZSR CLC did a wonderful job of introducing each of us to issues that mattered — and one of our deep dives that year was around food.

Some of the same speakers who would address the Summit in 2016 addressed the CLC. Shorlette Ammons, our colleage at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, spoke to the history of land ownership and agriculture in minority communities. Scott Marlowe of RAFI addressed the role of “big ag” in our food system and the root meaning of sustainability. We studied the legislative study committee report on food desserts.

Access to food was an issue that had been on my radar before, but my role and involvement would only deepen in the years ahead. 

It led, in part, to this column, Healthy Ever After, which is named after a food-focused blog that my late wife, Jamie, launched in the months prior to her death.

It led to a Gathering for Good in Durham around school nutrition and hunger. On that evening, Jim Keaten of the Durham Schools Nutrition Program spoke of innovations that could end stigma around school breakfast and lunch. But another fact that Keaten shared stood out to me. Of Keaten’s $14 million nutrition budget, only $20-30,000 came from the city, county, or state. The remainder came from federal reimbursements and community support.

In the days that followed, Mebane, Ferrel Guillory, and I would meet with two of the UNC Chapel Hill Food for All Co-Chairs, Alice Ammerman and Marcie Cohen Ferris. We spoke of the Gathering for Good, the remarkable facts that had been shared, and the energy in the room. As we broke bread, we imagined the event that would become the Carolina Food Summit, bringing stakeholders together to explore our foodways, our stories, our windows of opportunity for changing policy, and potential solutions.

The summit raised difficult questions, surfaced issues, and generated connections that we will build on in the years to come.

Just 18 days after the summit, chef and business/community leader Aaron Vandemark was hosting 17 kids in his restaurant asking the next generation,

“What change can we create through food?”

So our work continues.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.