High school culinary program going mobile

Food truck will be learning lab for students

PORT TOWNSEND — Last spring, Port Townsend High School principal Carrie Ehrhardt got the kind of phone call most administrators can only dream about: there was money in the budget and she needed to spend it.

They were funds for the career and technical education program that had gone untouched during the pandemic because the school had been closed.

“Our finance director said, ‘Carrie, you have so much money sitting here, you’ve got to do something with it,’” Ehrhardt said.

Ehrhardt knew she had to contact CTE culinary program instructor Jennifer Kruse.

“I went right downstairs and I interrupted her in the middle of her class and went, “We’ve got the money for the truck!” Ehrhardt said.

Not just any truck but one that would be appropriate for conversion into a mobile kitchen for the culinary program and where students could apply what they were learning about menu design and food preparation, engage in community outreach and develop the skills needed to run their own businesses.

Ehrhardt credited former CTE director Tanya Rublaitus with the idea for a mobile kitchen about eight years ago.

“It’s always been rolling around in our heads, but the cost of a truck was just unaffordable,” Ehrhardt said. “To get a high-quality vehicle that you’re gonna convert into a mobile kitchen, you’re looking at about $85,000, which is impossible for a small school’s CTE budget.”

Western Food Trucks & Trailors in Richland, which builds mobile kitchens, gave Ehrhardt and Kruse recommendations for what to look for. They budgeted $20,000 to $25,000 to buy a good used vehicle and $55,000 for Western Food to do the design and remodeling. A Carl D. Perkins grant for almost $10,000 will pay for the exterior design.

“We didn’t want to just buy some junker that the minute we bought it, it wouldn’t work or we’d be down at Memorial Field and it wouldn’t start,” Kruse said. “We did quite a bit of research and came up with a price with the idea that, if we needed to increase it a little bit, we could.”

They ended up purchasing an 18-foot-long truck in Tukwila that they found on Craigslist. Kruse and a fellow instructor drove the truck to Richland, where Western Food Trucks & Trailors will install a grill, oven, freezer, refrigeration and electrical and plumbing systems — everything required for a code-compliant commercial mobile kitchen.

It is anticipated that it will be ready in the spring, before the end of the school year.

Kruse said people should not anticipate the mobile kitchen popping up around town, at football games or at special events.

“It’s really meant more as an educational experience to say [to students] if this was your truck, what would you do? What would be the steps you’d take?” Kruse said. “We’re really looking for skills that students will use and or need as they look at their future careers.”

That isn’t to say students won’t prepare and sometimes sell the food they prepare in the mobile kitchen.

“We want to showcase our products and we’ll want to charge, because we need to pay for ingredients, but we’re looking at it as breaking even plus earn some money for the culinary club,” Kruse said.

The CTE program has already established partnerships with Jefferson Healthcare and the Jefferson County Farmers Markets to share use of the mobile kitchen once it’s up and running.

“Working with them will really enhance the experience for the kids, and for them, they will get to use the mobile kitchen for what they do,” Ehrhardt said. “Our partnership is really around the commitment to supporting the community and local, healthy and sustainable food.”

Amanda Milholland, director of the Jefferson County Farmers Markets, said she first learned about the mobile kitchen from Arran Stark, the culinary director at Jefferson Healthcare, who is also the lead chef of the markets’ culinary education program.

“One of the things that we’ve been talking about in the market is how do we continue our culinary education program in a way that’s inclusive and engaging, and that’s exactly what the partnership with the high school looks like,” Milholland said. “I’m not exactly sure what it will end up being in the long term, but we’re considering the best options for encouraging people to eat local food and support local farms and to learn more about how to prepare food.”

Ehrhardt stressed that CTE’s mobile kitchen was not a commercial venture.

“We are not trying to compete with our local food trucks,” she said. “This is a much bigger vision that is about extending the classroom experience for the kids. It will occasionally be used at different events because we want our community to become familiar with what it is, but it stands for something much greater than that.

“How can we support our community through local healthy foods, and what are all the different ways that we can use it to get kids out into the community, working with our partners and our community members.”

Ehrhardt and Kruse said they didn’t look to other districts or schools for models of how to create a curriculum incorporating a mobile kitchen because there really aren’t any that have one.

“I don’t think you’re going to find another small district whose CTE program has a mobile kitchen,” Ehrhardt said. “I think, just like we were with our maritime program, we’re going to be a little innovative, and that’s why we’re so excited to have our partners to support and guide us in this.”

Ehrhardt and Kruse said the response among students and community members has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The first question is, ‘Is it gonna be red?” And it’s like, no, it’s not,” Ehrhardt said. “There will be a red hawk on it somewhere and the Port Townsend High School and the Port Townsend School District on it, but it will also have the Jefferson Healthcare logo and the Port Townsend Farmers Market logo.”

The decision about the design will be made when the build out of the mobile kitchen is closer to completion, Ehrhardt said, and it will made with input from their partners, as well as students.

Even though the mobile kitchen won’t be ready for at least five months, Kruse said there are students who are ready to jump right in to begin the kind of hands-on and experiential learning the district wants to provide.

“It really is meant to be a student-driven program where the sky is the limit,” she said.

________

Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached by email at paula.hunt@soundpublishing.com.

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