Nicholls Bridge to Independence, Culinary Institute programs partner

Nicholls Bridge to Independence student Lauren Gennaro plants seeds into rockwool cubes as Bridge student worker Gabby Champagne oversees Friday at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute.

THIBODAUX, La. — If you stop by Bistro Ruth or The Bakery at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, you will be eating herbs and vegetables grown on the Nicholls campus by students in the Bridge to Independence program.

Bridge to Independence students are growing herbs, spices and other vegetables by using tower gardens located in the Culinary Institute. The partnership benefits the two programs by giving Bridge students an internship and saving the Culinary Institute money by providing an endless supply of certain ingredients.

Tower Gardens are vertical, aeroponic garden structures that hold the plants in slots and provide light by way of lamps that reach down from the top of the structure. Using a donation from local nonprofit, Blessed by Downs, Nicholls purchased three tower gardens. Some of the herbs grown will be used in baked goods sold at The Bakery at Chef John Folse Culinary Institute.

“This gives our students a connection to another department on campus and the chance for an internship,” said Tara Martin, director of the Bridge to Independence program. “Our students want to work in food service, and they can take ownership of the gardens because they have been here from day one. It means something special to them.”

On Friday, Bridge students planted cilantro, lavender, thyme, spinach, tomato, basil and parsley. Chef John Kozar, department head of the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute, said they will expand that selection in the future to give more experience to those students.

“It’s a lot of fun to work with the students from the Bridge to Independence program,” said Kozar, who teaches a food sanitation course for Bridge students. “They’re passionate about the things they do and they bring a freshness to the program.”

Bridge to Independence assists students with intellectual disabilities or autism spectrum disorder with job and social skills. Nicholls’ program is one of only 50 programs in the United States certified by the U.S. Department of Education and the only in Louisiana.