Athens high school students will try their hand in preparing a fine, four-course meal under the tutelage of Athens chef Peter Dale on Feb. 24 for the fifth annual Cultivating Community Dinner.
A collaborative dinner involving both The National and local nonprofit the Athens Land Trust, the event began after the latter was looking for a fundraiser to double Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dollars for low-income families purchasing food at the West Broad Farmers Market.
“A big focus of our market is that we are in a low-income neighborhood and a low-income community so we’re trying to serve those residents,” Heather Benham, executive director at the Athens Land Trust, said. “It’s important to make the produce as affordable as possible because ... access to healthy and fresh food is majorly important for all members of the community.”
For Dale, hosting the dinner at his restaurant and taking his own time to volunteer is his way of giving back to the community.
“It’s a cause we believe in … [and] it’s always been something we’ve been happy to be a part of,” Dale said.
The dinner draws in a diverse crowd in terms of age, race and gender due to the varied communities the Athens Land Trust works with. With a broader audience to appeal to, as well as the time of year, Dale said creating the menu for this event, in particular, can pose more challenges.
According to Dale, food for the meals will be locally sourced with some of it coming from the Athens Land Trust itself.
A salad of local lettuces, shaved winter vegetables, Hobo Cheese Company cheese and pecans with a pecan oil vinaigrette will be the first dish served to the attendees.
The next dish will be local grits topped with poached shrimp, salsa macha, peanuts, marinated onions and cilantro. Following that, an entrée of beef kofta meatballs, with beef sourced from The Boy and the Dog Beef, in spiced tomato sauce and yogurt with cucumber will be presented.
A decadent dessert of flourless chocolate cake, strained yogurt and seeded South Georgia cane syrup will finish off the four- course meal.
Working with Dale and the rest of his kitchen staff all afternoon and evening, the students are a part of the Athens Land Trust’s Young Urban Farmers program.
Established in 2013 in conjunction with the Clarke County School District, the program has since served over 200 high school students, according to its website.
The students help prepare and plate the dishes by chopping and cooking. Dale said they typically partner students with chefs, giving them a true one-on-one experience and mentorship.
According to Benham, the participating students enjoy both the act of creating and the food and later eating it.
“The staff of the restaurant [show] them how you really do it in the field, and then … Peter works with them and talks about what they’re making and where the local produce is coming from,” Benham said. “A lot of them are proud to come out and see all the people there eating what they prepared.”
The Cultivating Community Dinner, which brings together two important Athenian establishments, is an example of the power of collaboration and the tangible change partnership can bring to a city.
“I think it's important for the broader Athens community to understand the needs of the low-income community and ... help create accessibility for that community to some of the things they maybe have access to without thinking about it,” Benham said.