GULF SHORES — The future of hospitality and tourism in Gulf Shores is bright and looking through green-colored glasses.On Wednesday, March 15, students in the Gulf Shores High School …
GULF SHORES — The future of hospitality and tourism in Gulf Shores is bright and looking through green-colored glasses.
On Wednesday, March 15, students in the Gulf Shores High School hospitality and tourism program welcomed the community to campus for a Farm to Table Harvest dinner and a peek inside the "Small Town, Big Garden" program.
The evening was put into the hands of 60 students who planned and created everything from recipe development and cooking to growing the produce and design of the signage.
Culinary teacher Kristen Madsen and her students began creating and testing recipes in January. They brainstormed recipes, tested and tasted. In the end, students created 16 dishes that highlighted ingredients grown by students, local farmers and purveyors.
An example of a dish served was Bill-E's Firecracker Bacon. It paired Bill-E's Bacon, Southern Chili Lab hot sauce and black garlic sambal to create a delightfully spicy grilled bacon on a stick. Students also created three oyster dishes using Navy Cove Oysters.
Over 100 diners circulated among the food stations while waiting their turn for a tour of the greenhouse. Students gave guided tours and explained their roles, what they grow and even how they troubleshoot and repair issues. It was interesting to learn that the students take care of the greenhouse on their own. Each owns their role, troubleshooting issues and caring for their plants daily.
Three years ago, soon after becoming a city school district, an idea was born to start a small collaborative garden project at GSH that tied in with the Farm to School and sustainability movements. The goal was to tap into the teachers' and students' passion for protecting the local environment and foster the desire to live more sustainably.
What started with one small hydroponic growing system has evolved over three years. "Small Town, Big Garden" now fills a greenhouse and the surrounding ground. Students grow lettuce that is used by the three district school cafeterias for salad. Compost is made with food waste and paper from classrooms and used in planters and sold at the farmers market, and students are raising funds to add a chicken coop.
"Because we are in a supportive school system that allows us to dream big, seek out our passions and help others find their create, innovative and meaningful ways to address local issues and learn together, we can change the world more than we could ever imagine," said Jessica Sampley, academies and career tech coordinator.
Sampley said the program has received over $60,000 in grant money to grow and sustain the project. They also rely on a strong foundation of community support and partners. The program just recently received additional grant funds to grow the sustainability initiative at all three district schools through the Alabama Department of Education Career Tech Middle Grades grant.
The "Small Town, Big Garden" coordinator and hospitality and tourism teacher, Amanda Talantis, spoke to the crowd about her students and their passion for the program.
"I think they are really buying into this vision. They are going to be great stewards of this planet and this community," Talantis said. "I think that it starts with farm to table and teaching them to grow something and turn around and cook something at the same time. We are planting seeds that are going to last a lifetime."
It is easy to get students to buy in when the head of the program has an infectious passion. Sampley asked Talantis to head the program because of her passion for gardening, composting, health and nutrition. Her first 15 years as an educator were spent teaching Spanish.
When she speaks about the program and her students, you can see why her students find her in the hallway two hours before class to see if they are going outside. They love it as much as she does.
Inside the classroom, they talk about all things related to sustainability. From health and wellness, water conservation, waste management and energy efficiency.
"I keep telling them we have a social responsibility here. We live at the beach and need to take care of this place and be good stewards," Talantis said. "It doesn't mean we need to stop tourism. We just need to do it better and we can. They are just these little engines of creative ideas. Those discussions in the classroom are some of the things they are most passionate about."
Many of the students involved with the program were happy to share their involvement with the program and their passion.
Student ambassador Carleigh Jurkiewicz is a sophomore and took hospitality and tourism her freshman year. She said her schedule didn't allow her to take it this year, but she is still volunteered for the dinner and led tours through the greenhouse.
When asked what drew her to take the class she said, "It just seemed interesting the things they had going on with growing food. Being in a tourist town, it is kind of interesting to see how things work, hospitality, how we house our tourists and what brings them in was interesting. I thought I might want to pursue a career in it."
Jurkiewicz ended up taking more to the sustainability aspect of the program and hopes to have her own garden and grow her own food one day. She is also considering a career in sustainability.
"The program has inspired me and I want to continue that and go on to inspire others," Jurkiewicz said. "I want to have a career in sustainability. Something to do with the environment, helping it and educating others."