Superintendent’s Notebook: The Food Service Team is Essential to Learning
Our main job as a school district is to educate the students, but they can’t do their best if they’re hungry. That’s why our food service team is an integral part of our educational mission.
More than half of the students attending Portland public schools come from food insecure families. They depend on the thousands of nutritious meals our food service team serves each day. Breakfast and lunch at school not only quench students’ hunger, it also helps them reach their full learning potential.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how essential our food service team is.
Even when our buildings were closed, a Herculean effort by this team ensured families got a nutritious bagged breakfast and lunch each day at outdoor dining venues. As our schools have become hybrids, the team has also become hybrid, serving students both at school and at collection sites. We can never thank the team members enough for their tireless efforts to ensure that our students do not go hungry.
This month, as I conclude my series on PPS’s exceptional staff, I pay tribute to Jessica Puzak, a member of the Foodservice team. Jess, the cafeteria team leader at Rowe Elementary School, exemplifies the dedication and service these essential staff members bring to their jobs.
Jess, who grew up in Massachusetts, did several apprenticeships and internships on organic farms after graduating from college. She wanted to use her learning and experience with children, so she joined FoodCorps, a national non-profit organization working with communities to connect children to healthy eating in school. In 2017, as a member of the FoodCorps service with Cultivating Community, Jess began teaching Rowe’s students about gardening, cooking and nutrition before becoming a cafeteria team leader in 2018. In 2019, she is also became coordinator of the school garden, a position supported by Rowe’s PTO. Learn more about Jess:
How did you get interested in food culture?
As a child I became fascinated with how you could put a seed in the ground and then something magical would grow. In addition, my grandmother from New Hampshire had a beautiful garden. We were very close. She passed away when I was in high school, and I became almost obsessed with flowers and growing vegetables.
What brought you to join the Food Service team?
As a member of the FoodCorps service, I partnered with Food Service for taste testing and promotion of the school lunch program. When the team leader position opened up I decided it could be really cool as it is an opportunity to continue some of the work I was already doing around food with the school children, and j got to learn how school meals actually work.
What are the cafeteria team leaders doing?
We are responsible for providing meals that meet all USDA requirements – students need a vegetable, fruit, grains, and protein, and they need available milk. I am the go-to person to make sure this happens efficiently and in accordance with safety standards, and also to ensure that school breakfasts are delivered to classrooms. There is a lot of bookkeeping and record keeping, so it’s a very busy and uninterrupted shift.
How has COVID impacted your work?
My God, it was really something how quickly we had to completely restructure ourselves, but we did. Something extraordinary came out of this experience last year – it really highlighted how essential school meals are.
What drives you?
What gets me out of bed every day is that there are hundreds of children who rely on me to feed them. Plus, if the kids are hungry, there is no way they can focus on learning. By providing quality fresh food, we inherently create more equity in our schools. It’s motivating for me.