One high school in the Freehold Regional High School District boasts a commercial kitchen and café, with a culinary arts program to go with it. Another has greenhouses, and an animal and botanical science academy program.

The two – Freehold High School and Freehold Township High School – have joined forces to create a program, “Food Preparation Through Community Partnership,” that provides classroom and career experience by combining student efforts in food production and preparation. In short, students at one school grow produce, and at the other, students cook it.

The schools, which also worked with the community outreach program of Wegman’s Food Markets, were honored with this year’s School Leader Award top prize, the Exemplary Program Award.

“It’s really what education should be about – learning applied to a task,” said Freehold High School’s Chef Toni Kozak, who teaches in the Culinary Arts Academy there. She made her comments in a school district video about the project.

“Project-based learning, here we are,” Kozak said. “It’s like the circle of life. It’s the circle of education here.”

The idea for the project began in May 2011, when teachers at the six-school regional district’s Culinary Arts Academy and Animal and Botanical Science Academy began discussing a collaboration. The goal was to bring together the two career and technical education programs, and provide “real life” experiences for student in the high-demand, high-skill and high-wage career areas of food production and preparation.

A year later Wegmans Food Markets’ Executive Leadership Program signed on, offering to provide instruction and consultation, and the project took off.

Funding is shared by the district and Wegmans.

Freehold Township students grow vegetables and herbs, including six types of tomatoes; several varieties of lettuce; and five types of basil, in refurbished greenhouses at the high school. Produce is then brought to Freehold High School, where students design recipes using the produce, and prepare them in the school’s commercial kitchen and “Five Star Café,” which is open to the public .

Brian Ducey, an agriculture science teacher at Freehold Township High School, said students grow herbs and vegetables from seeds or cuttings in the greenhouse, and produce is periodically delivered to the culinary program. Last summer, he said, produce continued to grow, and was donated to the local “Open Door” food pantry in Freehold Borough.

More than 300 district students are involved in the program. “The students are really excited about the program,” said Ducey. “This has given them an opportunity to have a genuine real-world learning experience.”

As part of the learning process, chefs from Wegmans have conducted culinary demonstrations, teaching students techniques such as blanching greens and poaching garlic. In addition students are developing their own recipes independently and with the assistance of Wegmans.

A video of the program, on the Freehold Regional district web site, shows dozens of students in white chef’s hats watching the demonstration, then lining up, with plates in hand, to taste the end result.

There were some setbacks along the way. After the first planting at Freehold Township High School, many of the plants died, and the students had to start again.

But school officials say they are proud of the program that, along with cooking and growing produce, teaches students about budgeting; inventory management; sustainability; health, safety and environmental management systems; and nutrition. Future plans may include creating a student-operated farmer’s market, exploring produce market demands and trends, and researching partnerships between local growers and restaurateurs.

Students who were interviewed for the district video say they enjoy taking part.

“These hands-on experiences, you really get to see that it’s like,” said 12th-grader Alexandria Wilson. “It’s not, ‘you’re going to sit down in class one day, you’re going to write ten worksheets, or you’re going to write an essay.’ You’re actually doing the stuff you’re learning.”

The School Leader Awards recognize innovative programs that enhance learning in New Jersey’s public schools. The Food Preparation Through Community Partnership program was honored at Workshop 2013 in October.