LTI Culinary Program, Buhl Mansion Grow Fruitful Partnership

SHARON, Pa. – The Laurel Technical Institute Sharon Satellite is feeding the community with skilled culinary workers and aspiring businesses and now is also providing fruits and vegetables.

LTI’s culinary program held a ribbon-cutting Wednesday to celebrate the official partnership between the school and Buhl Mansion Guesthouse and Spa. The partnership brought about an official naming of the school’s garden, Culinary Horticulture Education and Food Sustainability Garden — or CHEFS Garden.

Stephen Urda, career services coordinator for LTI, said the partnership can help with the garden’s sustainability and that Laura Ackley, general manager of Buhl Mansion, and the Winner family of Winner Companies have been long-time supporters of LTI.

“The garden was relying solely on donations, and some expenses like dirt and water can cost a lot of money,” Urda said. “We’re really happy with the partnership. Laura was just here in July for our Burger Bash at Gigi’s Cafe for Donna’s Diner, and it was fun.”

Ackley said she’s proud to support the garden because of its four pillars: education, community, sustainability and hard work.

“[July 11] would’ve been my late uncle Jim Winner’s birthday, [so] this is a perfect day to do it,” Ackley said. “Feeding the students into the community and into the restaurants is a wonderful thing. Community involvement is such a special part of our life too. So I’m very proud to be a part of this organization.”

CHEFS Garden grows a variety of plants, such as tomatoes, zucchini, sunflowers, wheat, rye and more.

Urda said this was the garden’s third harvest, and it’s growing and becoming more and more self-sustainable. In the beginning, LTI had to buy seeds, but now seeds are replanted from the garden’s own harvested crops.

P.J. O’Connor, a chef and lead culinary instructor, said the garden has been critical to the students’ curriculum at LTI, with a special focus on sustainability.

“It really goes along with our horticulture class. They learn not just how to cook the products but how to start them from seed, transplant them to the garden, care for them, harvest them, cook them, preserve them,” O’Connor said. “We really teach them how to use the whole plant for different dishes or for compost.”

At the end of the students’ courses, they present a capstone dinner where they present their portfolio of dishes that will contain fresh ingredients from the garden.The garden grows a variety of plants and food, from tomatoes and zucchini to wheat and rye. Various herbs and flowers are also grown to be used for recipes, canning or for donations.

The community also becomes more sustainable with the opportunity of a garden, said Doug Decker, executive vice president of LTI. “Our students take care of the garden. They use the garden for their recipes and learning in the LTI kitchen incubator, and then, hopefully, after graduation they start up a business in Sharon and continue feeding the community,” Decker said.

The garden is also a collaboration of LTI and the community to provide an enriching opportunity for education and volunteerism. O’Connor said the students have only so many class hours in their course, so the garden heavily relies on community support with planting, watering and harvesting.

Three trees were planted to celebrate the partnership at Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. From left are Donna Winner, Laura Ackley and Karen Winner.

LTI is partnered with Whole Life Services Inc., which provides community-integrated enriching experiences for families and people with disabilities. Sherry Pontera, who leads the greenhouse program, said she and other individuals from Whole Life Services volunteer Monday through Friday at CHEFS Garden. 

“It’s been a really great experience. Stephen, O’Connor and the students know a lot of my individuals on a first-name basis,” Pontera said. “My individuals really enjoy their time at the garden for the social aspect, as well as the planting, growing, harvesting and little crafts we do at the garden.”

According to Urda, the project started a little before COVID-19 but was difficult to maintain because of social distancing and restrictions, but with the help of the community, students, instructors and administrators, they turned seeds into crops.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, O’Connor prepared zucchini muffins made with ingredients from the garden’s recent harvest. To celebrate the new partnership with LTI, the Winner family and community officials planted three trees: an almond tree, a plum tree and a pear tree. 

Pictured at top: Chef P.J. O’Connor, lead culinary instructor, prepared zucchini muffins using ingredients that came from CHEFS Garden.

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