School lunch and all the working hands behind it

Lunch Ladies*

Lunch Ladies*

Elizabeth Cecil

Jennifer DeVivo of West Tisbury School cafeteria (right) and Julie Sierputoski of the Produce Connection MV (left). The Produce Connection MV works to deliver fresh local food from Island farms to Island schools, like West Tisbury.  

Thursday March 23, 2011
First lunch period, The West Tisbury School

It’s Parent-Student lunch day at the West Tisbury School and there’s a new lunch lady presiding: Jennifer DeVivo. Her hair is pulled back in a paisley kerchief, she’s wearing jeans, an apron, and she doesn’t stop smiling. Jennifer and her co-worker, Kim Baker, move at lightning speed unloading trays and crates from Kim’s van. West Tisbury’s school lunch is different than the rest of the schools on the Island. There used to be no cooking allowed due to a lack of permits, counter, and refrigerator space, so the majority of the food was bussed over from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School kitchen and made by Chartwells, a national school lunch provider.

The West Tisbury School, the MVRHS and the Chilmark School all use the Chartwells program. The Chilmark School can’t do any food prep or heat anything up so they always provide cold lunches for their students, however, as of this past spring, all seven schools on the Island source local foods, (including the Chartwell’s schools).

“Our style,” says Jennifer, “is a homey approach. We’re like two aunties in the kitchen. We have a sense of humor but can also be firm about good manners and trying new foods. The kids tell us their opinions and we listen, we want them to feel part of something. Eating together is being a community.”

When the first lunch period begins, seventh graders jostle each other in line, eyeing the food. “What’ll you have today?” Jennifer asks a hungry student. He points at a quesadilla and grins.

“Please,” he says, “and thank you.” She winks and slides the cheesy tortilla onto his tray.

Twenty minutes to serve food, eat, and clean up for each grade’s lunchtime is a challenge met with tons of practice and a lot of hands on deck—both big and small.

“At the end of every day we walk out of here and we can’t believe we actually did it.” Kim says.

Christina Napolatin of the Charter School is an inspiration. She prepares healthy food in a tiny kitchen within the budgetary restrictions and most importantly, the food is good (the UPS guys stop in regularly for lunch). Together with her coworker, Theresa Barwick, Christina prepares more than a hundred lunches a day.

It’s her culinary school background at Le Cordon Bleu that inspires Christina to get creative with commodity and local food.

One of the more popular treats are Christina’s smoothies, which she makes with frozen orange juice, canned fruit and local yogurt.

What else inspires Christina to be involved with the school lunch movement? “Personal satisfaction. When someone says thank you. Some kids come in hooked on junk food, but I don’t sweat it, by the time they graduate they’re eating whole grain pasta, and trying white bean soup, and they love it. The key is there’s nothing nutritious about anything you serve unless kids actually put it in their mouth and swallow it.”

On the other side of the Island, Gina DeBettencourt of The Edgartown School is hard at work in the school kitchen. “I love it! It works. I helped design it so it has everything the way we want and need it.”

Gina has worked in the Edgartown cafeteria for over 20 years. Her staff includes a former hairdresser, former travel agent and her own mother. With different backgrounds in all kinds of industries, they all bring different creative ideas to the lunch table.

“It’s like a big family here. We all get along, the kids love coming in the kitchen, it’s the hub of the school,” says Stacey Gouldrup, Gina’s coworker.

The menus are varied and everyone tries to incorporate vegetables from the school gardens on a regular basis.

“The garden and greenhouse—it’s extra work, but I have the staff, and I’m lucky to have the town and Parent-Teacher organization’s support. The PTO raised the money for and built me that greenhouse. It’s great for us and it’s part of the classroom curriculum.”

Gina shops carefully and uses commodity food, but knows she is blessed.

“The Edgartown selectman have let me know that feeding the kids comes first. I buy what I need and no child is ever denied a meal.”

Another fan of the school lunch program is Nicole Bartlett, the Edgartown School nurse. “Look at this fresh fruit, it’s free and unlimited. Look at the variety in our salad bar. If kids are having a bad day, a stomachache or headache, the first thing I ask them is what did you have for breakfast. The problem is often solved when we march them down to Gina.”

A typical day at any Island school involves the school cooks completing a myriad of jobs aside from just serving the food: menu-planning, ordering and stocking, prepping and serving different kinds of food in twenty minute cycles for both breakfast and lunch, interacting with the kids, cleaning and prepping for the next day, and processing paperwork regarding inventory, federal and local funding, and processing and tracking individual student accounts.

Gina often starts her day at 6:30 a.m. and stays until 4 p.m.

“These kids are my customers, if they’re happy then our kitchen is a success.”

Oak Bluffs School Principal Richie Smith loves lunchtime. “I eat lunch here. I try to eat lunch with the kids several times a week.”

Tisbury Principal John Custer also joins the students for lunch, which builds relationships and friendships and gives kids an opportunity to talk about their day.

Food in schools is not ignored. In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted an analysis that revealed an alarming statistic: 78 percent of high school students consumed less than five servings of fruits and vegetables during the one week span of time the survey was done. Changes and improvements to school lunch have been made since 2003, but there’s still a lot of work to do to to ensure better lunches in schools.

Editor’s note: After 15 years of serving students at the Martha’s Vineyard Charter School, at press time, Christina retired and left the kitchen at the Martha’s Vineyard Charter School.

Over her time there, she implemented and pinoreered bringing local foods into the school’s kitchen.

She used imagination when ordering from the dismal school commodity lists and created delicious, crave-worthy meals that students would rave above.

Christina’s Chicken Caesar salad wraps are a school favorite, as are her warm hearty soups, cheesy pizza served on pizza days, and her famous burrito bar. Chandler Rothbard (formerly from the Outermost Inn) will be filling Christina’s well worn clogs.

Additional Reporting for this article was done by Ali Berlow, Sydney Bender, Elissa Lash and Anna Ward.