Here at ChopChop we focus more on cooking at home, but we have a lot of friends (like First Lady Michelle Obama and the organization Foodcorps) who advocate for healthier, better school lunches. So we were so excited to hear about Jennifer Devivo, who is the head chef for a public school in Martha’s Vineyard.
Jennifer works hard to create inspiring school lunches while also inspiring kids to cook at home with their families. Seven years ago Jennifer was given the opportunity to launch an independent lunch program for the West Tisbury and Chilmark Schools on Martha’s Vineyard. Their main mission is to source local food and cook from scratch, as well as utilize the USDA national lunch program’s commodity food allocations. The schools promote farm to school and sea to school practices on a daily basis and foster meaningful relationships with farmers, fishermen, and other food purveyors alike.
In the school kitchen students help prep for the following school day’s lunch.The students chop vegetables for the salad bar and make sauces and soups. They also help assemble burritos and sandwiches, blend smoothies, and make homemade granola bars. Jennifer says the best part of her job is seeing the excitement and accomplishment on the faces of kids who are making lunches for their school community
We spent some time with Jennifer and asked her a few questions about what she does in schools.
Here are 7 things we learned about Jennifer:
1. She learned to cook because she lived abroad and couldn’t find her favorite foods .
Jennifer was a latch key kid growing up in Rockland County, New York and primarily cooked “convenient foods” from a box, can, jar or pre-frozen. She began cooking at the age of 17 when she moved to Scotland. “I missed simple American comfort foods that I couldn’t just grab and get at the local supermarket. I taught myself how to make pasta sauce, mac & cheese, homemade tortillas for tacos, and soups.”
2. Jennifer started cooking at a restaurant in Scotland where a Sri Lankan chef opened up her palate.
“I took a job at a local restaurant in Edinburgh and began my culinary adventure tutored by an incredible chef from Sri Lanka. He opened my eyes to simple and complex flavors and I was able to master a myriad of techniques under his watchful eye.” Now Jennifer loves to cook Indian and Thai curry. She also loves making sushi and porchetta sandwiches with sautéed broccoli rabe.
3. Jennifer’s school lunches as a kid were “pretty basic” (burgers hot dogs chips and ice cream sandwiches) but now she’s putting great food on the menu. She’s known for her fish chowder, which is served at school! (And that’s not the only delicious sounding item on the menu.)
“I serve my fish chowder once a month at school and the kids love it! As a matter of fact I serve fish every single Friday at school and it’s become so popular that it rivals the lunch order numbers on pizza day! Other popular lunches include the tomato basil mozzarella panini, chicken chili, any type of Ramen, Mediterranean kebabs, falafels, and vegetable and meat curries.”
4. She’s “changing the way we think about #schoollunch one meal at a time”.
“My mission when I started the lunch program was to eliminate what I call the “Food Court mentality” in schools. When kids are faced with too many choices i.e. burgers, chicken fingers, pizza as well as a main meal option, a sandwich option, salad bar every single day at school, they are most likely to stick with the usual suspects and never try anything new. I found that by just offering a main meal option, a sandwich option and a salad bar option every day, the children are more inclined to order to the main meal option. My K-8 students are trying foods they never would’ve tried before, they’re excited to learn where, who and how their food got to their lunch trays and they love encouraging their friends, who might be afraid to try stuff, to take the leap! It’s quite miraculous and wonderful to watch.”
5. She reads and teaches with ChopChop recipes.
Some of her favorites are granola bars, roasted vegetables, eggs, chicken, and chickpeas. Jennifer says that ChopChop helps her students ease their way into cooking. “I love sharing the magic of cooking with kids and adults. I really enjoy teaching seafood classes. It’s amazing when people realize how easy and delicious fish is!”
6. Part of her job is to plan the menu at school.
Jennifer writes the menu and sticks to a predominantly cyclical rotation. Mondays are normally pasta days, Tuesdays are Mexican-inspired, Wednesday is pizza day, Thursday is a traditional lunch, and Friday is fish. This pattern helps Jennifer keep a handle on her buying and budget and it also gives children a sense of ownership as they know what to expect on each day.
7. She believes in teaching to the multisensory experience of eating and has practical ways of doing it.
“I think it’s really important to teach kids the value of food to tell them the story about where their food comes from, who grows it, and who catches it. I find that children not only eat with their mouths but they eat with their ears and their eyes too.” To help promote all the senses Jennifer keeps things colorful and encourages community members who are fisherman and farmers to join children during their lunch periods. She also encourages teachers to sit and eat with their kids to model eating behavior.
You can find Jennifer in Boston this summer. She is launching a teen cooking class series in the teaching kitchen at the Boston Public Market this March, May & July. Kids will learn basic cooking skills, how to source food thoughtfully, and enjoy new foods & flavors.
Hungry for more? Learn more about our events and join us at one of our upcoming cooking workshops.