The Year of No Buffets (or Food Service at Park During COVID)

in Fall/Winter 2020 by

This has not been a good year for buffets. And eating family-style in a large dining room is out of the question. But Park’s Dining Services team has rallied with the support of the Park faculty and staff and managed to adapt. Chef Anthony Marco was gracious enough to answer my many questions about how they’ve continued to serve healthy, tasty food, safely.

Challenges posed by COVID-19 run the gamut, from gathering and organizing menu choices, to delivering the meals throughout the school, to managing extra waste material.

The menu form sent out every Friday is the initial key step in providing students with meals that meet their tastes and needs. It allows Dining Services to reduce food waste and ensure menu availability by placing informed orders with food purveyors. It’s also the way that Chef Anthony ensures that each child with an allergy or dietary restriction gets a suitable meal.

Chef Anthony notes that about three to five percent of the student body has an allergy or dietary restriction. For that group of students (and the people who love them) there’s a lot of peace of mind created by the meticulously methodical system Park’s team uses to label and individually modify meals. He says, “Each day I go over the orders and identify any allergy concerns or restrictions; this information is relayed to the production team, such as gluten free pasta or dairy free pizza. We lay out all of the boxes a day ahead, attach the labels and separate out the containers that have allergies or restrictions before any food goes near them. Each grade does have a master print out and it is cross referenced before the finished lunch makes it to the cart for delivery.”

Matt Kessler, Park’s co-director of secondary school counseling, used his expertise in an unexpected way to assist in overcoming the challenge of the meal ordering. Without Matt’s help, Chef Anthony says he’d be “crying under a desk somewhere.” It might seem logical that a faculty member with “counseling” in their description has prevented tears, but in this case it’s not because he’s helping our children choose their next school. Instead, he’s helping them choose their lunches. Matt used his Google Forms skills to create the form that accurately ensures that everyone gets a lunch, even those who forget to order.

Menu choices in hand, Chef Anthony and the Dining Services team arrive each day at 6 a.m. in order to have time to prepare each gourmet, individually packaged meal for our children and the faculty and staff at Park. 

Despite many pandemic-related hurdles, some things have made life easier for the team. Flik, the food service company Park uses, has enough buying power to coordinate with suppliers and avoid shortages (though paper products and disposables can be hit or miss). On the staffing front, Park is lucky enough to have two pairs of staff – a mother and son, and a married couple – who as members of single households can work closely together in the kitchen while remaining within COVID-19 safety protocols. 

In some cases Park has brought in outside help as well; while meeting food safety guidelines to prevent food-borne illnesses or virus transmission has always been a priority, this year Park is not only audited by the Brookline Health Department but also has hired a third-party auditor to oversee COVID-19-specific protocols.

Once the students’ meals are safely prepared and packaged by the kitchen team, other Park staff and faculty step up to handle the huge logistical challenge of meal delivery, distributing meals to classrooms from the tiered carts that food services wheels to 15 different locations on the school campus – including Faulkner House! 

After students’ bellies are full, there remains the final challenge of waste disposal. While the increase in single-use disposables during this pandemic has created waste-management problems in many communities, at Park the Dining Services team has managed to bypass the landfill by choosing compostable containers that are collected by the facilities team and then composted by Bootstrap Composting in Jamaica Plain.

Asked what he most misses being able to serve, given the new constraints of what can easily be turned into a packaged lunch, Chef Anthony explains that the hardest part about the changes resulting from the pandemic isn’t what or how they’re cooking. It’s not getting to see all the students.

He misses seeing kids walk through the Dining Room in the morning and watching their faces light up when they realize it’s Breakfast Day. “I know the whole team really misses the face time with students and getting to know who loves broccoli or who wants pizza with only cheese and no sauce,” he shares.

My kids aren’t the ones who love broccoli, but they do love the baby green salad with barley, fall vegetables, and dijon vinaigrette. As vegan kids who never had school lunch until they arrived at Park, their faces lit up when I told them Chef Anthony said they’d make them vegan cheese pizza so they wouldn’t be left out on pizza day. Chef Anthony and his team didn’t get to see those smiles this year.

Still, together with many other Park staff and faculty, Dining Services has found a way to safely prepare and deliver meals during this difficult time. They’ve overcome logistical challenges, and are working harder than before – without witnessing how much their food is appreciated. If your child loved the edamame dumplings or the bahn mi sandwich, maybe as parents and caregivers we can adapt and do some extra work delivering our kids’ appreciation, just like Park delivers their lunches. Chef Anthony’s e-mail is marcoa@parkschool.org.