COVID Or Not, ACRES Farm Still Puts Down Roots

See how one Colorado program teaching the next generation of chefs and farmers is still growing strong.

Six male and female students standing in a farm field holding bunches of greens from harvest.
ACRES Farm is not for profit, but it still had to make changes to keep operating in the face of a pandemic. / Courtesy Chris Starkus

Warren Tech is the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program for Jeffco Public Schools. Its culinary arts and farm-to-table programs allows students to obtain industry certifications, learn about sustainability and food sourcing by working on Warren Tech’s ACRES Farm, and gain a complete understanding of the culinary sector. Here’s what head culinary instructor Chris Starkus had to say about the program, the farm, and how they are changing with COVID. 

DiningOut: What does the program look like for students on the culinary arts and farm tracks?

Chris Starkus: Both the culinary arts and farm programs can be up to two years starting in students’ junior year, so we have both first- and second-year curriculums. In the first year, culinary students gain a general understanding of cooking techniques and kitchen safety, and farm students learn about things like soil content and high-altitude seeds. In the second year, we go deeper into sustainability and understanding where food comes from. Where the first year is the highlight reel, the second year is figuring out how those fundamentals work and digging deeper. 

DO: How has the pandemic impacted day-to-day operations at Warren Tech?

CS: We were one of the first schools to open face-to-face, and being CTE, many of the things we’re teaching are things that you need to learn with hands-on instruction. Right now we’re hybrid, with two cohorts and with both morning and night classes. Not only did we reduce student capacity, but we split them up to create smaller groups. I teach them face-to-face two days a week and then they have asynchronous learning on their online days. Since instruction time has been halved, the onus is on minimizing lectures and doing as much hands-on learning as we can. For example, one day we shucked clams in class, because it’s not necessarily something the students can learn online. 

DO: Do you distribute produce grown on the farm to local restaurants?

CS: Yes, the farm-to-table program does a CSA and it had about 90 shares during the season. Not only is it affordable, but it reserves portions for WIC and SNAP [recipients as well as restaurants] so there is community access to quality, affordable food. Another big part of CTE is teaching the students to be leaders in their community. As part of that, the culinary arts program works with food banks and partners with organizations like the Ronald McDonald house. This is limited this year because of COVID, so the program is adapting. Instead of catered events, students are making meals and offering curbside pick-up, or providing direction to people looking to cook at home. 

Person kneeling and planting seeds in a farm plot inside a giant gardening hoop house.
Warren Tech students sowing seeds as part of the farm-to-table program. / Courtesy Chris Starkus

DO: What are you most looking forward to as head culinary instructor at Warren Tech?

CS: This is my first year at Warren Tech and I transitioned here from my previous position as a chef at Urban Farmer. I was on the board of ACRES Farm with Josh [Olsen, former instructor], on his advisory board, and my wife and I also ran a farm. What they’re teaching to students at Warren Tech is part of my own ethos and something I’m passionate about….I can see the changes in how we’re teaching these things from when I was in culinary school years ago. From the industry side, I knew what I wanted to see new individuals bringing to the culinary space, and could help teach that. One of the interesting things about CTE is that we have advisory boards for each class, so we bring professionals in. Our first advisory board came together with different chefs and professionals; in asking them what they see and what COVID is doing to the industry, we can tailor our program to that. 

DO: What sets Warren Tech apart? 

CS: The interesting thing about WT is that all walks of life are welcome here, in both the culinary program and at ACRES Farm. The students can learn in a safe atmosphere, ask questions, and get a jump on industry. With the concurrent enrollment program, kids are getting college credit and double their time through Red Rocks Community College. They can also get Food Handling and Allergen certifications from ServSafe. Not only do they get the training they’ll need in the industry, but they learn how to safely work in a kitchen and begin to understand sustainability and the financials of the buisness. This is what the advisory boards have shown is the most important: They’re looking for someone with a passion for what they are doing and an understanding of what they’re doing on a deeper scale. Warren Tech helps the students to understand the totality of business.

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