What’s cooking at the Charter School

This past Monday's offerings at the Charter School: whole wheat penne pasta with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, and chicken sausage from the Cleveland Farm. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

You know that it’s lunchtime at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School when hungry students start filing out of their classrooms. They read the “what’s local” board as they pick up a plastic blue tray and wait at the lunch counter, which is smack in the middle of the school’s main corridor. With trays full of food, students head back to their classrooms to have lunch with classmates and teachers.

The “what’s local” board hangs just to the left of the lunch counter. The day I visited it boasted chicken from The FARM Institute and feta cheese from Mermaid Farm and Dairy. The man responsible for acquiring these foods is Chandler Rothbard, the Charter School’s food service manager, and he knows a thing or two about good food.

Mr. Rothbard attended the Culinary Institute of America, which is sometimes called the world’s premier culinary college. He went on to apprentice at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Mr. Rothbard also served in the military, going to Iraq twice, where he cooked for upwards of 4,000 soldiers.

He came to the Vineyard in 2009 to help open the Atlantic Fish and Chop House in Edgartown and for the past two summers he worked as the sous chef at the Outermost Inn in Aquinnah. This fall, he saw a year-round opportunity at the Charter School and took it.

One of Mr. Rothbard’s first orders of business upon taking over the kitchen at the Charter School was to track down local meat. “Chandler is really headlining the local meat movement in the Island schools,” said Noli Taylor, coordinator for the Island Grown Schools. He has connected with Island farmers who are nothing but eager to help. Mr. Rothbard mentions the Grey Barn, Cleveland Farm, The FARM Institute, and Morning Glory as particularly generous. The Charter School does their part to give back too, saving all their kitchen slop for farmers to feed their pigs.

Mr. Rothbard was singing the community’s praises, when as if on cue, a parent interrupted our conversation. “Are you the lunch guy?” she asked. “That’s me,” Mr. Rothbard replied, standing to shake her hand. She wondered if he would be interested in buying meat from their family farm, assuring him that it is USDA inspected. Mr. Rothbard was excited and the parent was pleased as well. “We like to know where our meat is going,” she said. They made plans to talk meat soon and a business deal was born. “See what I mean?” Mr. Rothbard said almost sheepishly as we resumed our talk.

Principal Bob Moore is thrilled with Mr. Rothbard’s work in the kitchen so far. “Chandler talks a lot about nutrition, all the food he buys is about its nutritional value,” Mr. Moore said. “And he’s doing a heck of a job getting the products we need.”

Mr. Moore also noted, “In the 15 years that Christina [Napolitan] worked as the food-service manager I never received a single complaint about the food, and I want to keep it that way. So far, the kids are raving about the food.”

They certainly do seem to enjoy their lunch. I watched kids balance large cups of FARM Institute jerk chicken and black bean soup; watermelon, basil and Mermaid feta salad; cornbread; plus one or two pieces of fruit and a drink: milk, juice, or seltzer water on their trays, and walk carefully back to class, maybe sneaking a piece of watermelon on the way. Later that week, meals included a taco bar with brown rice, squash and kale, and Shish-kabobs with choice of chicken, sausage, or squash with pineapple, cherry tomatoes, onions, and a veggie pasta salad.

Meals always include a vegetarian option and fresh fruit, and usually a green salad. These delicious and healthy lunches are not just for the students. Community members are welcome, even encouraged to join the Charter School for lunch, for $5. Just stop in around noontime and you can’t miss the lunch stampede.

Even with all the good things happening in the kitchen both Mr. Moore and Mr. Rothbard agree that there is plenty more to do. “This is just the start,” Mr. Moore said.

“We’re always trying to get better,” Mr. Rothbard continued.

Future plans include horticulture, aquaculture, agriculture, and nutrition education; tripling the size of the greenhouse; a bigger school garden [although Mr. Moore notes that he was picking cherry tomatoes from the school’s already sizeable garden in October], and a culinary arts program. Along with a Charter School high school teacher, Mr. Rothbard hopes to raise a few pigs next year, specifically for the Charter School’s lunch program, possibly incorporating student participation in the livestock responsibilities.

Mr. Moore thinks that teaching students the importance and joy of culinary arts and the benefits of good nutrition will have life long benefits. “If we set up the parameters for them to learn these skills now, they’ll be better adults for it,” he said.

Because the most important thing at lunch is that the kids eat and enjoy what is served, Mr. Rothbard is open to input. He recently made a suggestion box, which fills up pretty quickly. He pulled a few out of the box at random to show me: escargot, ribs, rib sandwiches, and snow cones. “The kids are full of suggestions,” he said and laughed.

Interestingly, there were no pleas for chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese. “You’ve got to let kids try new things, when given the opportunity, they like it, Mr. Rothbard said and then added, “I’ll still make a macaroni and cheese, but I’ll start it with a béchamel.”