Chilmark School puts the hot back in lunches

Chilmark School kindergarteners and first graders enjoy lunch together in their classroom. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Two peals of the bell at Chilmark School signal it’s time for lunch. As would be expected, students rush in eagerly. This year, however, their usual enthusiasm has been heightened with the addition of a new hot lunch program.

Students step up to a window in the great room just inside the school’s entrance, where self-proclaimed “lunch lady” Ray Lincoln serves up the trays. Students take their lunches back to their classrooms to eat. They also have the option of signing up to eat in another room with a friend or sibling on a first-come, first-served basis. In the combined classroom for grades four and five, desks are moved together and decorated with placards that identify the makeshift eatery as “The Hamster Cafe,” the name subject to change every 15 days, and spell out lunchtime rules.

On Friday, lunch included shepherd’s pie, with a vegetarian option, grilled zucchini, fresh orange slices, and a carton of milk. Budding food critics gave it mixed reviews, which, interestingly, seemed to divide along gender lines.

Kindergartners Katherine Chvatal and Laila Fenner offered no comment and shook their heads no when asked if they liked their lunch. First-grader Yossi Monahan gave a smile and a thumbs-up when asked the same question. Fifth-grader Owen Favreau declared, “It was great.”

From out of the cold

The hot lunch program is a welcome change for students, parents, and staff at Chilmark School, which in the past was at the end of the line for meals made at and delivered from the regional high school by Chartwells. A national food service management company, 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.

With some kitchen upgrades done over the past few years, West Tisbury School had a stove, convection oven, salad bar, steam table and soup warmer, so it could offer some hot food items. Chilmark School, however, had no food service equipment or a working kitchen, so meals were limited to mostly box lunches, delivered by van from the high school at around 9:30 am every day.

Last year, 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. Their goal was to move away from a long-standing corporate food service contract and expand the kitchen in order to prepare fresh, cooked-from-scratch meals with local ingredients on site for both the West Tisbury and Chilmark Schools.

After discussion at public meetings and hearings, the Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) school committee approved funds for a food service program based at West Tisbury School and agreed to tap $100,000 from the district’s excess and deficiency funds to cover the one-time cost of the kitchen renovation, to offset the budget increase.

Over a few short months last summer a group of volunteer contractors and many members of the community and local businesses donated labor and materials to help school business administrator Amy Tierney and project manager Peter Koccera bring the project to fruition.

Carving out a space

During that time, Chilmark School also made necessary upgrades to begin hot lunch service. Using $4,500 from maintenance funds left over at the end of June, head of school Susan Stevens hired carpenter Arthur Sierputoski to create a small food service room to meet board of health regulations.

Although Chilmark School was built with a kitchen, Ms. Stevens said it is not up to code for use as a commercial kitchen so it was never used for that purpose. Instead, it serves as the school’s front office, and the staff uses the microwave and combination range/oven from time to time.

Ms. Stevens said her biggest challenge initially was to figure out where to put the new food service area. Although carving out a space in the school’s great room seemed the most likely choice, board of health regulations prohibit wood floors in a food service area. Aside from the floor issue, Ms. Stevens said she and the school staff also were reluctant to give up any of the great room’s space, since it is used for morning circle and other activities that involve all students.

Instead, Ms. Stevens came up with the idea of walling off a portion of the foyer area where the bell tower is located, inside the front entrance and to the left. Over the summer Mr. Sierputoski put up a wall and door, and framed and screened the ceiling, to make a small room to house a warming station, refrigerator, small sink, and some shelving for supplies.

Since there was already a window between the great room and foyer, Mr. Sierputoski turned that into a food service window. He recycled the top of a wood bench from the foyer to create a shelf where the lunch trays are passed through to students lined up inside.

Ms. Stevens said she opted to spare the expense of completing the room’s ceiling until she could gauge the new lunch program’s success. In the past, on average only about six students purchased lunch on a regular basis. Now, the count averages about 25 to 30, including preschoolers who are invited to take part. On pizza day, it may go as high as 50.

Given those numbers and mindful of the cold air that rushes into the food service room every time someone opens the front door, Ms. Stevens said she plans to have the ceiling put in soon.

Every day Mr. Lincoln picks up food made in West Tisbury School’s kitchen by head cook Jenny Devivo and staff, and transports it in special containers that keep it hot. He transfers the food to a steam-heated serving table. After lunch, he scrapes the plates into a bucket that K/1 classroom teacher assistant Eleanor Neubert takes home and adds to her compost heap at Flat Point Farm. Mr. Lincoln’s last duty each day is to pack up and take the dirty dishes back to West Tisbury School, since Chilmark School has no dishwasher.

Lunches cost $2.75 for students and $3.75 for adults. The food service program is budgeted as a $70,000 deficit spending program, according to Martha’s Vineyard School business administrator Amy Tierney. It includes the cost of food, cleaning supplies, training, uniforms, computer software, kitchen repairs, commodity deliveries, equipment maintenance, utilities, and paper goods. The food service employees’ salaries, including payroll obligations and benefits, are included in a budget line item of $121,700.