By Eileen Ogintz

CHARLOTTE, NC — Roasted lemonade or Virgin Mary garnished with fresh rosemary?

Serving up squash lemon bundt cake
Serving up squash lemon bundt cake

The farm to table lunch was expertly prepared and served—from the lemonade to the garlic mashed potatoes. Fresh grilled veggies, squash casserole and meat loaf “cupcakes,” vegan and regular. Because there was so much squash in the market, Chef Linda Palmer explained, desert was a delicious squash lemon bundt cake.

But we weren’t at some trendy new restaurant. We were at Cabarrus County’s Hickory Ridge High School being treated to lunch prepared and served by students enrolled in the school’s Hospitality and Tourism Academy. Other high schools here may have such academies aimed at those interested in IT or engineering—here it’s hospitality with a million dollar commercial kitchen and a chef who spent more than two decades as a Navy chef, whether students aspire to front-of-the-house careers like senior Josh Harper or to be a chef like his classmate Dylan Smith.

Herbs growing at the high school organic farm
Herbs growing at the high school organic farm

“We have everything you would find at a professional kitchen,” explained the program coordinator Robert Machado, explaining the program is now capped at about 60 students a grade, with each class putting on an event at the end of the year.  This was a special lunch in honor of Travel Media Showcase, which is being held in Cabarrus County, NC this year.

In true farm-to-table fashion, we also visited the farm where the veggies, garlic and garnishes came from.  But like our “restaurant,” this was no ordinary farm. Agriculture is North Carolina’s top industry and fruits and vegetables are grown in all 100 counties across the state.

Lomax Incubator Farm, under the auspices of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, helps people to become farmers by for a small fee, offering them plots of land, inexpensive rental of shared farm equipment, expertise from local farmers and more.

Some have full time jobs like Taylor Bryan, one of the training farmers who plans to grow flowers but is a nurse at a Charlotte hospital. Others have spouses who have full time jobs. Some graduates, after spending three years or so here, have gone on to successful farming themselves, said Aaron Newton, the Lomax Farm Manager.

They are motivated by a desire to create and eat healthier food. This is a certified organic farm. They also are motivated by a different lifestyle. “I knew I didn’t want to spend my career at a desk,” said Ben Straight.

Lemonade and virgin marys served up at the farm
Lemonade and virgin marys served up at the farm

They are cultivating mushrooms and seasonal vegetables, tomatoes and micro salad greens.  There is a volunteer day every month and should you be visiting Charlotte, call and you might be able to get a look around and show your kids where their food comes from, maybe even pick a few weeds.

There are plans for more community programs and a pilot to work with a local middle cchool 6th grade class—sort of a nature’s classroom where-your-food-comes-from program.

Before being accepted into the program. Would be farmers must show their seriousness by volunteering with a local farmer for at least 80 hours.

“The work is hard. There are bugs and it’s hot but it’s worth it,” said Taylor Bryan.

Especially when you get to eat the results! More squash casserole please!