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Published March 14, 2023 at 1:50 p.m.
On October 17, Jared Cushing, athletic director of Hazen Union School in Hardwick, died by suicide. Two days later, numb with shock and grief, the community came together for the boys' soccer Senior Night game. In the snack shack, students proffered free bowls of beef or vegetarian chili, chili dogs and chili-topped nachos. The food was cooked and served by participants in a class called A Recipe for Human Connection, now in its sixth semester.
As everyone rallied to maintain the Senior Night tradition for the student body of just under 300 middle and high schoolers, Hazen principal Jason Di Giulio was unsurprised to see the Recipe for Human Connection group show up with food.
"It just seemed natural and normal that they would come out and do something," he said.
The hands-on high school course, Di Giulio explained, "is about exploring what it means to be human together through the lens of cooking and sharing a meal together." Sitting down to eat as a family or in community is a "sacred experience" that is endangered in contemporary society, the educator opined.
Since 11 students enrolled in the initial fall 2020 hybrid offering, the Recipe for Human Connection class has grown to 21 teens. They fill a former home economics kitchen classroom with laughter and mouthwatering smells two to three times a week, depending on the block schedule.
Every week, the students plan together what they will cook for a "family meal," to which they all sit down at a long table. They also regularly make food to share throughout the school and with neighbors in and around Hardwick.
The students work with two co-facilitators, who are not Hazen teachers but are affiliated with local nonprofits: Reeve Basom, place-based education coordinator for the Center for an Agricultural Economy; and Tara Reese, a cofounder of the Civic Standard, which is working to support community connections in Hardwick. Their time and many ingredient costs are partly grant-supported.
Students have baked cookies for Town Meeting Day and made fresh vegetable soup kits to give away at Hazen's fall open house. They have served spaghetti and local beef meatballs with from-scratch tomato sauce for a screening of the San Francisco Opera's La Traviata at Hardwick's American Legion. They have ladled up Thai curry soup made with roasted local tomatoes and squash for an audience of 50 who attended a talk about Vermont's working landscape at the East Hardwick Grange.
The class has also gleaned excess produce from local farm fields, helped plant seeds and harvest in the school's on-site greenhouse, worked with a local videographer to shoot footage for a cooking show, and learned how to make cheese from principal Di Giulio, who has a herd of goats.
Much of what the class does is driven by the students. "It's always a conversation," Reese said.
That includes the idea of making chili for the October soccer game. "The class is always so boisterous. That day, it wasn't," Reese continued, describing the somber atmosphere after Cushing's death. "The students just needed something; they just needed some joining together."
In the darkness, the teens knew instinctively that sometimes cooking with and for people helps. "This is what this class is about," Reese said. "Everybody gets closer when you make food for people."
Fortunately, most of their cooking projects do not come in the wake of tragedy.
On February 16, roughly half the Recipe for Human Connection class plus a few other students arrived at the United Church of Hardwick around 8:30 a.m. to prepare a free community lunch of two soups, coleslaw, grilled cheese and cookies for about 80. Classmates back on campus were cooking for a local family with a new baby: herb salad with pickled onions, Thai basil chicken and spinach, panang curry meatballs with mango, and jasmine rice.
"Cooking for others is always fun," sophomore Aiden Fletcher said as he helped grate donated local cheddar for the grilled cheese at the church. "When I cook for myself, I never know if it's good."
Sally Anstey of Hardwick was organizing paper grocery bags marked with names of to-go meal recipients. The longtime community meal volunteer said she looks forward to the high school's monthly turn cooking. "It's wonderful to see students in the kitchen," Anstey said. "The energy is so much more energetic."
A Recipe for Human Connection's regular involvement in the church's community meal program grew from student interest, said Jen Olson, Hazen's work-based learning coordinator, who helps with the class and contributed to its start.
The idea for the course was born in the first year of the pandemic. During lockdown, Olson noted, "a lot of students in this community went AWOL" and food insecurity leapt. Olson and Basom, who had collaborated previously, took part in a virtual summer workshop held by the Montpelier-based Community Engagement Lab. The lab's mission is to help build and strengthen communities and forge connections between schools and towns through creative projects, Olson explained.
The two brainstormed how to use food and cooking to soften the isolation and help connect people, Olson recalled. During fall 2020, they made cookie kits and soup kits to deliver to student homes, "to have contact, to let them know we cared about them," Olson said.
A Recipe for Human Connection has continued to evolve with entwined threads of care and cooking.
The course falls under Hazen's Pathways Program, which empowers students to set their own learning goals and determine how they will achieve them. That can be especially valuable for those who struggle with traditional academic structure, according to special education teacher Josh Fox.
Fox spends a lot of time in the Recipe for Human Connection class, which includes several of the students on his caseload. "You get them in an environment like this, and they shine," he said.
Within the often stratified social networks of high school, the class stands out for the diversity of students it attracts — a value the teens clearly recognize.
On February 7, the week before the church lunch, the kitchen classroom was buzzing with cooking prep for a taco family meal.
Senior Lily Castle chopped tomatoes, scallions, jalapeño and cilantro for salsa. She said she signed up for a breather from a schedule full of advanced placement courses. "I love it," she enthused. "It's a nice place to just cook [and] nice to build a community around a shared interest."
Evan Riethe, another senior, was pressing tortillas out of masa dough. He appreciates the "interesting mix of people," he noted.
"The community and the environment in here are really great," sophomore Rebecca Fulford said while making guacamole.
Reese loves watching students build confidence and also "their willingness to talk to students in the class unlike themselves."
Beating together a double chocolate cookie dough in a corner of the room, junior Jade Bosley said she likes getting to know new people through the class, and those relationships don't stop at the classroom door.
Bosley and sophomore Preston Williams explained that they choose to bake cookies partly because they're easy to share. "We like handing them out," Williams said.
"Being able to give something — it's a way to connect with your peers," Olson noted, underscoring a fundamental class objective. "It's really about how sharing food helps us connect to community," Basom said.
At the church on February 16, ninth grader Harmoney Peets said she has fun cooking for the community meals. "I know everyone I am working with," she said. "We always get along, and it isn't overwhelming, surprisingly."
Peets was in charge of the kitchen music, which caused a little debate among the students, but nothing insurmountable. She moved from grilled cheese prep to whisk slaw dressing. "I'm a professional coleslaw maker," she said proudly.
While a crew of four started to put together takeout orders, Ginger Bowley and Noelle Ditzler, both in ninth grade, juggled their final batches of 200 chocolate chip cookies into the oven between pans of grilled cheese.
The first few lunch guests from the Hardwick Senior Center arrived and sat at the nicely set table. Judy Bolio said she retired from working in the cafeteria at Hardwick Elementary School and sometimes recognizes students. "It's a good learning experience for the kids," Bolio said.
Her friend, Wanda Reen from Walden, was looking forward to tomato soup and grilled cheese. "That's comfort food," she said.
The cookie bakers moved out to the serving line to ladle steaming soup for a crowd of about 30. Basom offered them the floor to welcome the lunch guests and thank the local farms and food producers for ingredient donations, but the pair dissolved into nervous giggles.
Bowley and Ditzler had finally gotten a chance to sit for their lunch when guest Orise Ainsworth came over to thank them. She told the young cooks that she moderates Hardwick's town meeting and had to get over the jitters when she first spoke in front of a crowd.
"I remember how you feel," Ainsworth commiserated. "We don't bite. You just have to imagine that we're all your friends."
Thanks to the Recipe for Human Connection, it's easier to imagine ever-widening circles of friends.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Feeding Each Other | Northeast Kingdom high schoolers cook for their community"
Tags: Food + Drink Features, Northeast Kingdom, A Recipe for Human Connection, volunteering, cooking
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