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BUILDING A BRYTE FUTURE

Full life cycle of food is strong focus at West Sac school district.

WRITTEN BY FRANK DOMPE
PHOTOS BY PATTY NGUYEN

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At the Bryte Career and College Training campus in West Sacramento, the concept of a classroom goes well beyond desks and lecterns. There is a garden, with chicken coops. There is a kitchen — a big one. There’s a café. And beyond that, there is a commitment to helping high school students forge connections with the land, the food it produces, and their communities.

“The Culinary Arts and Farm-to-Fork Education program was founded in 2015 to provide an intensive education that exemplifies the region’s unified approach to foodways, applying directly to lives and livelihoods,” says Renee Collins, Washington Unified School District director of career and college readiness.

WUSD’s website states, “Students are exposed to all aspects of the life cycle of food and the food industry through the courses with a special emphasis on farm-to-fork [practices], celebrating Yolo County’s rich agricultural bounty.”

Real-world roots

The CAFFE program is the result of student interest surveys that indicated a strong pull toward cooking and agriculture — the focus came from the ground up. Program director Collins explains that a specialized secondary education grant written by former Riverbank Elementary School principal Mike Woodcock brought in $35,000 in funding for CAFFE’s first year. Courses that stemmed from that effort quickly blossomed and have continued to grow.

Today, CAFFE offers two tracks: a food service and hospitality pathway and an agricultural science pathway. Each includes three courses and provides industry-specific instruction backed by a cohort of community organizations, businesses, and places of higher learning, and the program offers students the tangible benefit of commercial certification and earned college credit. Collins says the district’s participation in the Get Focused … Stay Focused! initiative guides ninth graders in crafting a 10-year plan in which they ask themselves, Who am I? What do I want? and How do I get there? These plans are updated and expanded as they progress through the 12th grade.

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Farm or fork

At the heart of CAFFE’s food service and hospitality track is a massive new instructional kitchen with stations that cover every aspect of food preparation, from final plating to laundry. The design and ongoing instruction have involved local leaders in the field, with Chris Jarosz of Broderick restaurants, Bobby Coyote of Dos Coyotes Border Cafés, and others taking a direct hand in planning the facilities and providing demonstrations. Far from an insular lab, the kitchen acts as a vehicle for broader engagement. In the recently opened Bryte Garden Café — a converted assembly room — students were able to serve breakfast and lunch to the public every Friday in May.

Hot on the heels of the culinary-focused division, the agricultural science pathway is building out its corner of the campus. A greenhouse is in the works, Collins says, with plans for an aquaponics pond where the fish raised will provide nutrients for the hothouse plants. In the garden, individuals assume ownership of the care and harvesting of the crops they’ve chosen and planted in plots and raised beds.

Membership in Future Farmers of America is integral to the coursework, and each student takes on a supervised agricultural experience project. This often involves animal husbandry, which resulted in what Collins says the pupils call “the chicken tractor,” a mobile coop that can be positioned around the yard so that the birds can engage in the pest and weed control that makes them such an asset to growers. Animals don’t follow the school calendar, so caring for their charges often continues through the summer months.

The ag side of the program connects with the wider world just as much as the culinary track, if not more so. Collins explains that numerous field trips include excursions that furnish real-world insights into life on a farm as students get to try their hands at tasks such as beekeeping, wagon rides, and goat wrangling. Just as importantly, they get to interact with people who’ve devoted themselves to what they do, with organizations such as the Center for Land-Based Learning and the California Rangeland Trust each introducing participants to real farmers living the life.

That kind of networking goes on throughout the program. The bonds CAFFE has forged with city, state, and local agencies, utilities, the West Sacramento Chamber of Commerce, businesses such as Raley’s, and an expanding list of other public and private entities have helped fuel its remarkable growth. Families get involved, too. The program is overseen by pathway-specific advisory committee members who include parents as well as faculty and industry experts. Parents aren’t limited to an outside view looking in ... they can sign up, too. WUSD offers adult education courses that can help everyone, from those looking to move into culinary careers to employees who want to advance within the industry. Best of all, it’s free, and Collins cites strong demand.

“We have students enrolling all the way from Vallejo, all the way up to Placerville,” she says.

In the course of just a few years, CAFFE’s staff and community supporters have expanded the farm-to-fork initiative in a way that meets students’ enthusiasm for hands-on practical instruction, enabling them to gain a growing set of valuable skills and access a wealth of resources. The program has become an important resource for the continued cultivation of excellence in learning how everyone can live off the land.

Frank Dompe is a freelance writer and former McClatchy Co. editor with a longtime interest in cooking and coffee. He lives and works in Sacramento’s Alkali Flat neighborhood.

For details about WUSD’s CAFFE program, contact Renee Collins, director of career and college readiness, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. For details about Bryte Career and College Training’s adult education programs, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Service at the Bryte Garden Café is expected to resume weekly in the fall.

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