Kitchen and lunch program plans simmer for Up-Island schools

The kitchen is undergoing extensive renovations. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

West Tisbury School’s summer kitchen renovation project is cooking along. As soon as students left the building in June, school business administrator Amy Tierney and a group of volunteer contractors and parents moved the plans from the back burner and turned up the heat.

The project to revamp West Tisbury School’s kitchen and beef up its equipment is linked to the start-up of a new independent food service program this fall that will also serve Chilmark School. The kitchen renovation involves some electrical and plumbing work, and not much construction, other than removing a wall to open up a serving area, Ms. Tierney said.

Up until now, the West Tisbury School had a stove, convection oven, salad bar, steam table and soup warmer. A major component of the kitchen project is the addition of necessary equipment for expanded food preparation, storage, and serving. Since the Chilmark School does not have a kitchen or any equipment, upgrades for the new lunch program are also being made there.

The two schools belong to the Up-Island Regional School District (FY13). In past years, their lunches were prepared at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School by Chartwells, a food service management company, and delivered by van. Chartwells has been under contract since 1992 with the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools to run the high school’s cafeteria. The up-Island schools were added to the contract in the mid-1990s.

Chartwells delivered about 8 to 12 cold meals, usually box lunches, a day to Chilmark School. With some kitchen upgrades made last year, West Tisbury School added some hot foods, including soups, and a salad bar, which was stocked with items prepared and sent over from the high school. Two part-time Chartwells employees did the prep work and heated and served about 120 meals a day.

Managing a big bite

During the UIRSD school committee’s budget discussions last fall, Island Grown Schools (IGS) program coordinator Noli Taylor and other IGS leaders, along with a group of up-Island parents, spearheaded a push to renovate West Tisbury School’s kitchen and to start up an independent lunch program. The IGS program is a component of the non-profit organization Island Grown Initiative (IGI), which promotes locally grown food.

After some vigorous debate about the timing, cost, and funding of a food service program at West Tisbury School, the school committee included the addition of $192,686 for it in the UIRSD FY13 budget. To offset its cost, the committee added $114,575, the amount anticipated for school lunch sales, to the revenue side of the budget. The committee agreed to tap $100,000 from excess and deficiency funds to cover the one-time cost of the kitchen renovation, to offset the budget increase. Ms. Taylor said more savings would be realized from free labor offered for the project after July 4 by some volunteers from the building trades.

The district’s member towns, Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury, approved the FY13 budget, which included the kitchen project, at annual town meetings last spring. The funds did not become available until the new fiscal year began on July 1. That left a small window of about six to eight weeks to get the kitchen renovation done and food service program in place before school starts in September.

A cornucopia of volunteers

Ms. Tierney said the project has truly been a community effort. South Mountain Company donated 40 hours of architectural time and provided a kitchen plan drawn up by Ryan Bushey, which the UIRSD school committee approved. Since volunteers were willing to do the kitchen renovation for free, State law did not require that she put the project out to bid.

The renovation crew includes three dads whose children attend West Tisbury School, Jason Napior of Radius Construction, David Sprague, a plumber with Nelson Mechanical Services, and electrician Steven Gallagher. In addition to their services, numerous parents and community members, coordinated by Nicole Cabot, have volunteered to help as well.

Ms. Tierney hired Peter Koccera, who works for the Architectural Consulting Group in New Bedford, as the owner’s project manager. He oversaw West Tisbury School’s exterior renovations last summer.

“I didn’t have to by law, but I felt that in dealing with so many volunteers, I needed to have someone to keep them on task,” she said. “He’s the one in constant contact with everybody involved. And I need someone who knows construction.”

Ms. Tierney said he proved to be a big help from the start in getting quotes for new kitchen equipment and applying for the necessary permits. The board of health and building inspector suggested a few changes, such as strengthening a load-bearing wall, adding a grease trap, separating areas for clean and dirty dishes, and using a certain type of paint on the kitchen ceiling.

After the permits were issued, construction demolition and trenching for underground plumbing pipes began about two weeks ago. Outdoor grease traps have been installed on the septic system.

Ms. Tierney said at Chilmark School a wall, door and screened ceiling were added in the bell tower to create a small room as a lunch serving area. It includes a warming station, small refrigerator, small sink for hand-washing, some shelving for supplies, and a window that opens to the assembly room for passing lunch trays to students.

Not your average appliances

The purchase of kitchen equipment takes a big bite out of the $100,000 renovation budget, Ms. Tierney said. The two big-ticket items are a combination refrigerator/freezer and a large capacity, restaurant grade, double-convection oven. The oven had to be handicapped-accessible, with doors that swing out, instead of up and down.Since there was no room in the West Tisbury School’s existing kitchen for the new refrigerator/freezer, it will be placed outdoors on a new slab poured just outside the kitchen.

Ms. Tierney purchased both appliances through Boston Showcase, at a cost of $16,325 for the refrigerator/freezer and $7,000 for the oven.

The town of Edgartown generously offered to donate some surplus equipment from its old school building’s cafeteria, including a stove, steam table, dishwasher, and Hobart mixer, Ms. Tierney said. She had to order a new dishwasher, because the old one was missing some parts and it was not feasible to recondition it. Clarence “Trip” Barnes, who owns a moving and storage business in Vineyard Haven, volunteered to transport everything to West Tisbury School, where volunteers scrubbed and cleaned it up.

The food service piece of the pie

Over the past school year, Ms. Cabot and other members of an up-Island school meals sub-committee met several times to plan for the new food service program. “Both the Chilmark and West Tisbury schools’ parents and administrators want to ensure the meals we’ll be bringing to the kids are comprised of as much local food as can be, and are really healthy,” she said.

The committee has been looking at many models for the food service program and will soon choose one for the up-Island schools as a next step.

“We’re looking to use the state food commodity program in a different way to bring fresher, local, regional food to our kids,” Ms. Cabot said. “For me, this has been the most rewarding project I’ve ever been part of, knowing my kid and everybody else’s kids for generations will get the benefit of this very hard work. Every week brings new challenges.”

The cost of the food service program will be somewhat of an unknown in the first year, Ms. Tierney explained. In the FY13 budget, she removed expenses related to Chartwells service and added two line items for costs the up-Island district would now incur.

A line item for $121,700 covers food service program salaries. It includes payroll obligations and benefits for the four part-time kitchen staff employees, based on what union food service workers currently employed by the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools receive.

Last week, West Tisbury School principal Michael Halt interviewed applicants for a new head cook, assistant cook, and two servers. One server will deliver and serve lunches at Chilmark School, and bring dirty dishes back to put in West Tisbury School’s dishwasher.

Ms. Tierney also added a $68,500 line item to cover the cost of food, cleaning supplies, training, uniforms, computer software, kitchen repairs, commodity deliveries, equipment maintenance, utilities, and paper goods. Many of those items were previously provided through Chartwells and were not in the UIRSD budget.

“It’s really a $70,000 deficit spending program, offset with reserve funds,” Ms. Tierney pointed out. “We’re really hoping the first year proves us wrong, that it won’t be that big of a deficit because everybody eats lunch at school, so that we put out a lot more lunches and collect a lot more money.”

Ms. Cabot would welcome more volunteers. “You always have a crunch time at the end, and I know community members will step up to make sure it all comes together then,” she said. Contact her at 508-560-0426.