Putting a story on the plate: the impacts of ProStart in Mitchell County
Aug 12, 2020 12:54PM
By Savannah Howe
Across Mitchell County, a program is growing that helps students develop useful skills for the workforce—while turning them into talented cooks at the same time.
ProStart is a culinary arts program that teaches cooking, management, criticial thinking and financial literacy skills through hands-on training with local professionals. So far, the program has made impacts in the Osage and Riceville school districts, where students have had the opportunity to learn alongside chefs at the 10th Hole Bar and Grill and the Cedar Valley Seminary.
Amanda Conway is a born-and-raised Riceville native and Iowa State graduate who has played a leading role in bringing ProStart to Mitchell County. She spent about five years teaching in the Riceville Community School District as the family and consumer sciences (FACS) teacher. When the school district experienced financial issues and low enrollment numbers, Conway had to transfer to the Osage Community School District; while teaching there, she heard about the ProStart program and started it in the school.
“It’s about providing students with skills so they can get into the workforce,” said Conway. “It may not necessarily be the job that they’ll be in forever, but these kids need to see what a decent job without a four-year degree looks like.”
"It’s about providing students with skills so they can get into the workforce. It may not necessarily be the job that they’ll be in forever, but these kids need to see what a decent job without a four-year degree looks like."
A Riceville student shows off his ProStart creation. Submitted photo
Conway had the opportunity to return to Riceville, where ProStart was still on her mind. She explained that the program seemed like it would fill several gaps in her FACS curriculum. So, she founded Riceville’s team, too.
“It’s hard to teach from grabbing different things out of other programs and kind of meshing them together,” she said. ProStart is part of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) classification from the Iowa Department of Education, which focuses on classes that strengthen skills in FACS, culinary programs, industrial technology and agriculture. It teaches students about career prospects that only require a two-year certification program rather than a university degree. “This gives high school students the opportunity to develop employability skills without investing a ton of time and money. They learn cooking skills, how to run a business, math… it’s all-encompassing.
“The seller for me on the ProStart program was that, if the student wants to complete the whole program, which is two years long, they can get 12 college credits.”
Conway said that the experiences gained through ProStart are universal for everyone, since 80% of working people have spent or will spend some time working in the hospitality industry. “That’s why this program spoke volumes to me personally. I worked at the drive-in when I was in school, I waitressed and bartended. If we can help these kids get a leg up in this industry, we absolutely should.”
When Conway started the first ProStart program in Riceville, she and her students teamed up with 10th Hole chef Bradley Ringhofer.
“When I first met Bradley, he told me about going to culinary school and stuff, I was like ‘wow, this kid is from the same little town as me and has done all of these amazing things,’” Conway said. “I knew he was exactly the kind of person my students should work with.”
Once a week, Riceville’s ProStart students get to visit the 10th Hole, where they learn how cooking in a restaurant differs from cooking in a classroom—and how to combine careful, measured techniques with improvisation in the face of chaos.
I taught them that cooking is a science and a chemistry. Bradley totally challenged that, which is good, because the experiences of those who know different things from you are so valuable. Bradley was over the moon to show the team everything he knows, because it’s just a passion of his.
“In the classroom, we cook with a recipe. In a restaurant, you’re almost always cooking on the fly,” Conway explained. The students got to experience cooking, ordering supplies and many other aspects of the industry. “It really threw my kids for a loop. I taught them that cooking is a science and a chemistry. Bradley totally challenged that, which is good, because the experiences of those who know different things from you are so valuable. Bradley was over the moon to show the team everything he knows, because it’s just a passion of his.”
Conway feels that, even if a student does not aspire to be a professional chef like Ringhofer, the skills that ProStart teaches—from making a healthy meal, to sending professional emails and thank-you letters, to communicating with others—are important for any adult.
Ringhofer said that he’s known he wanted to be a chef since he was in the 2nd grade, and that he’s happy to be sharing his passion with local students.
“I went through school and took the FACS classes, and they were fine,” he stated, “but here in small town Iowa, or even Iowa in general really, we lack a lot of food and nutrition knowledge. I think ProStart is a good way to catch up.”
Ringhofer attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culintary Arts in Minneapolis; he also gained culinary experiences in high-end Seattle restaurants and as a personal chef in the San Juan islands. Ringhofer had an opportunity to take his next culinary adventure to Hawaii, but he passed on the ocean waves and tropical cuisine to return home to north Iowa, where he took the job as chef at the 10th Hole.
He likes focusing on farm-to-table food, and got a lot of experience from a culinary internship at the Wise Acre Eatery in Pluto, MN, where a truck of randomized fresh grocery showed up daily.
One of the best things that could happen for a restaurant is having kids involved, especially in the kitchen. They learn about fast-paced environments, they learn to adapt to what they’re given.
“I had to think on the fly. What can I do with these things? That’s the experiences I share with the ProStart students,” he said. The chef thinks that the ProStart program makes kids excited to work. “One of the best things that could happen for a restaurant is having kids involved, especially in the kitchen. They learn about fast-paced environments, they learn to adapt to what they’re given.”
Ringhofer has since left the 10th Hole for the Cedar Valley Seminary Foundation’s food truck and other culinary institutions in Osage, but his involvement with ProStart hasn’t stopped. While many of his plans were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he hopes to bring ProStart students into the food truck this fall. Ringhofer has also started an after-school cooking program two years ago, which began with just 16 participants in Osage and has grown to over 300 across five different towns.
The chef wants to see ProStart continue to grow and “put a story on the plate”; he envisions the students hosting special dinners for the public at local venues, where they’re graded on the food, the planning, cost analysis, advertising and more. If all goes according to plan, it will become a collaborative effort between Mitchell County’s schools, restaurants, event centers and the Cedar Valley Seminary to both teach students valuable skills and support north Iowa’s hospitality industry.
He also hopes the program will help bridge the gap in the students’ knowledge of where food comes from.
“If you ask a kid where beef comes from, they will say the grocery store. But, if you drive two minutes out of any town in the area, you will come across a beef farm. We need to get back to the roots of our food. There’s a lot of components to local food: potatoes from Kittleson, tomatoes and vegetables from farmers markets, Twisted River Farms greens. The food supply chain is important.
“This way, when you’re eating a steak salad, you can say, ‘Steve grew this lettuce, this steak is from Bob, Jane grew this cabbage, etc. It’s things like that that bring more to that plate than you can even imagine.”
Ringhofer has many irons in the fire when it comes to working with ProStart, and he is excited to see how the program will blossom. “Amanda [Conway] is a phenomenal teacher. She makes things happen for her students.”
The two-year ProStart program is comprised of two elements: ProStart I and ProStart II. Conway said that, while there is no ProStart in St. Ansgar right now, she hopes it will be a unifying opportunity for students from St. Ansgar, Osage and Riceville.
“I think having a Mitchell County cookoff competition would be a learning experience for everyone,” she said. “I do foresee that happening in the future.”
Allie Bigley is a Riceville alumna that graduated this spring. She participated in both levels of the program, and said that the experiences she gained through ProStart have stuck with her.
It teaches students how to cook things, but not only that, it teaches them how to prepare for life.
“It teaches [students] how to cook things, but not only that, it teaches them how to prepare for life,” she said. “I learned so many new things other than just cooking. I know many measurements I never would have learned if it wasn’t for this class. Also, we always just had a good time and we could all be ourselves. It taught me many skills not only in the kitchen but with the food service industry. We learned everything from knife skills to managing a restaurant.”
Allie Bigley pictured with a ProStart project. Submitted photo
ProStart had lasting impacts on Bigley’s career outlook; she has decided to attend college to become a FACS teacher. “It made me realize how important this class is to me, and how it needs to be taught. I think that, not only is the class very important to take, but who teaches it really makes the class.
Many teachers look for a reason why they teach, and I would like to remind her why she does. She teaches because her teaching makes an impact on our small town Riceville school. She makes many people smile and deserves all the recognition she can for everything she does for the ProStart program.Allie Bigley
“I made a really good connection with my teacher, Amanda Conway. She really made me fall in love with ProStart. She is so passionate about her job. She not only cares about what she teaches but about the kids she teaches. Many teachers look for a reason why they teach, and I would like to remind her why she does. She teaches because her teaching makes an impact on our small town Riceville school. She makes many people smile and deserves all the recognition she can for everything she does for the ProStart program.”
ProStart is available in the Osage and Riceville schools. Questions about the program should be directed to the local FACS teacher.