Last Wednesday, 60 students walked into the newly-renovated West Tisbury School kitchen, chatting and giggling while they waited in line for their hot lunches. The scents of tomato sauce and garlic filled the cafeteria, while head cook Jenny Devivo bustled in the kitchen, feverishly slicing up cheese and pepperoni pizzas.
“Pizza day is always crazy,” she said. At the end of the day she tallied 190 lunches served at the West Tisbury school alone. The kitchen also services Chilmark school.
“And today’s pizza?” Ms. Devivo continued. “Ninety-five percent of the tomato sauce was all local.”
Over the summer the West Tisbury School installed an industrial kitchen in the cafeteria, including a new convection oven, dishwasher and outdoor refrigerator-freezer unit. The kitchen now allows cooks to prepare lunches for the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools rather than having lunches delivered from the regional high school through the Chartwells service. And with a new kitchen comes a fresh menu, filled with local produce from Island farms as well as the schools’ gardens.
The pizza sauce, for example, included basil, garlic and tomatoes from the West Tisbury school garden, plus more tomatoes from the Chilmark school garden and Morning Glory Farm, with a bit of canned tomato paste to thicken it. Greens from Beetlebung Farm accompanied the pizza.
At one table with an oregano centerpiece, the students’ lips were smothered with pizza sauce.
“I like it because they make it like homemade,” said third grader Kristin Perzanowski.
“It tastes way better than last year,” added third-grader Mae Baird. “They make the pizza right here instead of the high school making them.”
“And the veggies come from our garden,” said third grader Sophie Palmer. “We plant, harvest; we do mostly good things in the garden.”
In the garden a huge sunflower standing about 10 feet high towers over sweet potatoes, herbs, peppers, tomatoes and eggplants. Garden coordinator Teri Mello said she works together with Ms. Devivo to pick out seeds ahead of time to grow food that later can be used in the lunchroom.
“I know what grows well and makes kids feel accomplished,” said Ms. Mello. “They get to know where food comes from, how it grows and how it tastes right off the vine.”
Just the other day students picked the garden’s harvest of green beans clean, often alternating between putting one bean in the basket and one in their mouths.
“In the garden, they can’t stop eating them,” said Ms. Mello. “Then at lunch they say ‘Wow! Those are our green beans. I want them.’ It’s developing personal contact and making food less intimidating.”
In one week, the students harvested 17 pounds of beans, 4.5 pounds of basil, 25 pounds of tomatoes, 6.5 pounds of eggplant and 2.5 pounds of red peppers.
Back in the kitchen after all the lunches had been served, Ms. Devivo threw a big bag of green and purple beans on the scale. There were eight pounds from the school garden and eight more from gleaning. She plans on clipping, steaming and freezing the beans.
“Then in the middle of the winter they can get Island-grown beans as a vegetable. It makes it so much more. . . it just brings it home. You know what I mean?”
Ms. Devivo said it has taken years of campaigning and hard work by her and the rest of what she refers to as the Up-Island schools food team to make this kitchen come alive.
Nicole Cabot, the Island Grown Schools coordinator for West Tisbury, joined Ms. Devivo after lunch to reflect on the journey of changing the lunch program for the up-Island schools.
“If you think about it, the biggest hurdle was getting the kitchen done,” said Ms. Devivo. “The next hurdle is finding your feet in the food service.”
“Yeah, so how was pizza day?” asked Ms. Cabot.
“Ah-mazing,” responded Ms. Devivo enthusiastically. “I thought I was going to throw up I was so nervous. But it was the best time ever.”
The ladies agreed that after two and half years of working toward an independent meal program, to see it finally come together is very rewarding.
“We’ve been working really hard,” said Ms. Devivo. “We never thought this would happen. To realize your dream and to work with such incredibly like-minded, selfless people. What else could you ask for?”
In addition to attending town meetings and school committee meetings to gain support and funding for the new meals program, the up-Island schools food team gave taste tests and surveys to students and their families for what kind of food they would like to have available.
“The kids were so well-spoken,” Ms. Cabot said, recalling their answers. “‘I don’t want so many processed foods,’ ‘I want to know where my food comes from,’ ‘My dad’s a fisherman so why can’t we eat more fish at school?’”
“They were very vocal and passionate about what they wanted,” added Ms. Devivo.
And the team has delivered. With pasta Mondays and stew Tuesdays, the kitchen is averaging about 20 lunches to the Chilmark school and 120 lunches for the West Tisbury school. They are also greeting many new faces in the lunch line.
Ms. Devivo said, as one example, a student last year heated up macaroni and cheese everyday in the microwave, never ordering the hot lunch.
“This year he got in line and said ‘Umm, I’m gonna try the chili.’ He had a bowl of chicken chili and cornbread and a smoothie and he came back and said ‘If could hug you I would! That was awesome!’ And that just sealed the deal for me. That’s all I care about.”