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Project-based program serves lesson in sustainability  

Forest Hills — The concept of La Nostra Casa is an Italian restaurant with a “chill vibe” that would feature a large window where people can watch the chefs preparing their meal, explained junior Sam Boggiano. 

“The idea is that we wanted the restaurant — whose name means ‘our house’ in Italian — to be welcoming to anyone who wanted to come in,” Sam said. “The viewing window provides entertainment, especially for children, who sometimes do not want to be at a restaurant. It gives them some entertainment in being able to watch their food being prepared.”

Sam and his partners, juniors Brayton Schlatter and Mason Dhaseleer, were among 16 groups that presented sustainable farm-to-table restaurant concepts during the Project NEXT 11 NextCafé. Project NEXT is part of Northern High’s project-based, collaborative learning program for ninth-12th grades. 

Valuing student voice and choice, the Project NEXT 11 team found that students in the upper grades were interested in longer and deeper dives into projects, said Sean Duffie, who with Eric Baird and Matt Tracey are the Project NEXT 11 team teachers. The team also felt it needed to expand its agricultural unit, Duffie said.

“We started discussing what has the most impact on people when it comes to agriculture,” Duffie said. “The answer was the food on our table.”

Tracey suggested a farm-to-table project that would encompass Project NEXT 11 focus areas of economics, environmental science, civics and English, Duffie said. 

Juniors Mason Dhaseleer, left, Brayton Schlatter and Sam Boggiano present their concept restaurant, La Nostra Casa

Recipe for a Restaurant

The first step was to take the students to the Allegan County Fair, where they visited the 4-H livestock buildings to develop empathy for and meet small- and large-scale food producers, Duffie said. 

Students considered the question, “How might we reduce the carbon footprint of our food consumption through sustainable food production and economic practices?” 

From there, students researched recipes that would include sustainably grown or sourced food. 

For La Nostra Casa, students selected lamb with ziti ragu, featuring freshly grown garlic and onions. Brayton said the group found the recipe in a magazine and liked it because it allowed them to grow their own vegetables and locally source the lamb. Brayton also noted that the team planned to grow their own grapes for the restaurant’s wine.

“Most food travels about 1,500 miles to get to a table,” Mason said. “By growing food locally, we reduce that travel and reduce emissions, which impact the ozone.”

The next step was to research the carbon footprint of the recipe such as emissions, transportation, water consumption and industrial practices. Students also compiled supply and demand observations in the restaurant industry and evaluated the commercial group practices of crops to the locally grown products, all based on the selected recipe. 

Sam, Mason and Brayton presented on how small-scale farms could control pesticide and fertilizer and discussed the benefits of drip irrigation, which uses less water than spray irrigation common in large commercial farms. Another disadvantage of spray irrigation is that it causes more water runoff that contains fertilizer and pesticides, Brayton said.

“I think one of the most surprising things I learned through this project is that the largest dead zone caused by eutrophication — excessive plant and algae growth — is the Gulf of Mexico, which has cost the United States a loss of $82 million a year,” Brayton said. 

Putting It All Together

Students built a concept restaurant after meeting with local restaurateurs who have similar restaurants. For example, Brayton, Sam and Mason met with the owners of the Bistro Bella Vita and The Green Well.

The endcap of the project was that students had to develop a presentation, design a table setting, make a recipe and serve it to guests at the NEXTCafé, held the first week in December at the Forest Hills Fine Arts Center. Diners gave Yelp-like ratings of the student restaurateurs’ brand and knowledge of sustainable eating, commercial farming, supply challenges and how to maintain demand.

Sam said there is much to be considered before a plate of food arrives on a person’s table, something he never thought about before the project.

Said Brayton: “I think to go into the restaurant business you really have to love it and have that passion.”

Read more from Forest Hills: 
Taking the ‘American Dream’ to court
Practicing play, promoting kindness

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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