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This foodie scholar is keeping it green — literally — by learning to grow and sell her own food

Lisa Jones, a Milton Hershey School student from Upper Darby, is prepping for a career in the culinary world.

Lisa Jones with strawberries grown hydroponically in the Milton Hershey School greenhouse.
Lisa Jones with strawberries grown hydroponically in the Milton Hershey School greenhouse.Read morePhoto by David Vagnoni

Lisa Jones has known since forever that she’s going to have her own restaurant one day. She loves everything about the culinary world — the cooking, the business side, making folks happy with her food. So a few years ago, when she got the chance to join a program to learn how to grow produce that could be used in restaurant cuisine, she went for it.

“I wanted to learn so that further down the line I can have a farm-to-table restaurant where I’ll grow a lot of fruits and vegetables myself — and I’ll to be able to say that’s something we do for our restaurant to keep it healthy and keep it local.”

A good plan.

Except most people don’t already have a plan like that when they’re just starting high school. Then again, Lisa Jones isn’t most people.

Lisa, newly turned 17, is a junior at the Milton Hershey School, a private, tuition-free school for students in grades pre-K through 12 who come from economically challenged backgrounds. This summer, she spent her third internship in the school’s Agriculture and Environmental Education (AEE) program, growing and harvesting produce for student and commercial use. She’s been a leader and a standard-setter in the program — as she has been with everything else at the residential school since she arrived by way of Upper Darby and Delaware when she was in seventh grade.

“She’s the kind of person who has a high probability of success anywhere she goes,” said Jason Smith, the Hershey School’s horticultural instructional adviser and AEE program leader. “She definitely has her eyes set on a culinary career. She has the organizational and leadership gifts to be an executive chef somewhere. But I think she could manage a business and do an independent restaurant.”

One of 11 siblings, Lisa figures she’s been telling people about her plans for a career in the culinary arts since she was 4 or 5. She looks up to celebrity chefs like Guy Fieri and Gordon Ramsay.

But her real inspiration has been her mother, Beatrice Smith, whom she started cooking with when she was just a little girl.

“Every time I was in the kitchen with her, it seemed so peaceful. It felt like an escape for me,” Lisa said. “And whatever she was cooking, she always looked so graceful, even though it was hot in the kitchen, and we were sweating. There was something about the way she maneuvered around, cooking all these things at once. It fascinated me and got me really interested in culinary.”

Her mom, who learned cooking from her own mother, has been a business role model, too. Three years ago, after baking for relatives and friends for years, she officially launched Bea Delightful, LLC, an online baking business featuring her family’s Haitian recipes.

“Food is the one thing I taught my children to use as comfort,” Smith said. “Not comfort that you have to eat your way to happiness, but to comfort others. Because there might be someone who is going through something, and just giving them a simple meal will brighten their day.”

Lisa took those lessons to heart. At Student Home Monroe, where she has lived with 11 other girls the past three years, Lisa will volunteer to cook dinner for the house, said house parent Charonn Phillips. (”She makes one heck of a lasagna,” Phillips said.) But she will also teach fellow students how to cook, mediate disputes, and be a support.

“She had leadership qualities straight from the door,” Phillips said. “She’s well-respected and loved by her peers. We really caught a gem when she was assigned to our student home.”

Her career goals are well-known, too.

From the time she arrived, “She was already focused on her career and her future,” Phillips said.

That’s why Lisa was quick to apply to her school’s agricultural internship. She got involved with growing flowers outdoors and arranging them for sale, something she excelled at.

She was also part of an indoor growing program, including hydroponic agriculture — growing produce in water — that’s really taken off in the three years she has been involved. During that time, students in the AEE program began growing produce for the student-run Project Market.

And starting in 2019, the program forged a continuing relationship with the Hotel Hershey in which the students grow the microgreens that are served year-round in the hotel’s restaurant, as well as other produce.

“It was kind of awesome that the hotel thought our produce was a good enough quality to serve to everybody,” she said. “It showed me we were doing something right, having these big people buying our produce.”

Along the way, Lisa really got into “the business side” — both prepping produce for market and delivery, as well as being the manager, making sure operations ran smoothly and that orders were processed on time.

“I genuinely enjoyed seeing how a business is run,” she said. “And having that manager position, I kind of got a taste of what it might be like once I leave Milton Hershey.”

Lisa is a true student-scholar, said Smith, the horticultural adviser. This summer, she was involved in a research project with the Pennsylvania Recycling Market Center (affiliated with Penn State) and OLIN, a Philadelphia landscape architecture firm, to test recycled glass as a substitute for sand in a soil mixture commonly used for landscape planting. The results were promising.

She also experimented with the impact of LED lighting on the flavor of popcorn plants.

“She’s a wonderful go-getter and is able to work on the details,” Smith said, “but she can also see the big picture and be self-directed. So I’ve been able to give her more independence and more responsibility.”

This school year, Lisa is taking part in ProStart, a program of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. She will be working with fellow students on creating inventive meals for a statewide competition, which is right up her alley.

“I’m definitely a foodie,” she said. Even in her off-time, she takes lots of photos of meals being developed by others “to see how I could take what they did and apply it to my own concepts.”

Hershey students have placed first in the ProStart contest for the past six years, and Lisa very much hopes to continue that honor.

Such opportunities were what Lisa’s mother was hoping for when she brought up the idea of attending the Hershey School to Lisa and a few of her other children. Over the years, the family had moved frequently, sometimes for work, sometimes because of housing issues.

“We lived in some pretty rough places,” Lisa’s mother said. “I really wanted to give my kids the opportunity to do something different.”

Lisa’s older sister Mia graduated from Hershey last June; younger sister Danielle hopes to attend Hershey when there is an opening.

In addition to the opportunities for herself, Lisa said, she wanted to attend Hershey because she thought it would give her mother more time to focus on her own business. She’s proud of her mom’s progress on her dream, and said they’ve discussed opening a Haitian restaurant together one day.

But first, she needs to graduate from Hershey and enter culinary school. She’d love to attend the celebrated Culinary Institute of America and is looking into using Hershey’s much-touted college scholarship program to help finance it. [Editor’s note: the program was recently investigated by The Inquirer and Spotlight PA after some former Hershey students claimed it had left them in unanticipated debt.] She also dreams of studying cooking in France, which would please her mom, who has encouraged her to travel and see more of the world.

Wherever she lands, her admirers at Hershey will be following her career with rapt attention.

“Lisa is an extraordinary, promising student with so much potential,” said Smith, the horticulture adviser. “We’re excited to celebrate her, the gifts God has given her, and the ways she’s so actively stewarding that and developing her own strengths.

“She’s someone,” he said, “whose story will be fun to watch.”