If you ever have the opportunity to eat at the West Tisbury school for lunch you won’t be disappointed. The impressive food program, led by rockstar chef Jenny Devivo is quite the operation. And Jenny, well she’s the cherry on top.
Since 2011, the head chef and cafeteria director for the up-Island regional school district (West Tisbury School and Chilmark School), has made it her mission to source local food for the schools’ daily lunches. Part of Jenny’s dedication is fostering real relationships with local food purveyors, farmers, and fishermen; which enables her to enrich the developing palettes of Martha’s Vineyard with her farm-to-cafeteria-table menus.
Each Friday Jenny’s approach is more fish-to-table with her local “Catch of the Day” program, the first of its kind in the country. Since 2016, the program has been providing students with locally sourced and sustainably harvested fish through Menemsha Fish House and Boston-based regional seafood purveyor Red’s Best. Our friends at Island Grown Schools are highlighting seafood as their Harvest of the Month for April, so it’s only fitting we spotlight Jenny’s incredible work that brings the bounty of our local waters directly to our Island’s most selective eaters.
Getting kids to eat fish sounds like a challenge but Jenny’s got it down. “Fish Friday is as popular as pizza day,” she states proudly. Not only do the students take the bait, literally, but they’re educated on the sourcing too. Red’s Best uses traceability software with quick-response (QR) codes on the packaging that Jenny can scan and track. With that information she can tell the school community who caught their fish, off what boat it came, and how and where it was caught. That’s just about as local, sustainable and transparent as you can get.
The first time we visited the West Tisbury kitchen Jenny was serving Roasted Pollack with Lemon, Capers, and Butter. Other Friday favorites include her popular fish chowder made with locally sourced sustainable white fish like hake, cod, and haddock. The day we visited she was serving Fish Cakes and a special tasting treat of Blue Moon Oysters, harvested by fisherman Scott Castro from Katama Bay. These fresh bivalve mollusks were baked in the oven and then served on the half shell with turmeric butter…yummm! She’s also been known to serve up Paella, Mediterranean Fish Stew, Fish Tacos, Teriyaki Salmon, Baked Fish with Butter Cracker Crumb, and a Fish Sandwich.
Any day of the week you can find Jenny and her assistant chefs Maura Martin and Nisa Webster buzzing around the West Tisbury School kitchen preparing fresh, local lunch for up to 550 children and staff each day. That reflects an almost 100% participation rate in the program, up from close to 40% when she first took over the kitchen several years ago.
It all started in 2011, when the up-Island regional school district voted to opt-out of using the corporate school lunch provider they had contracted and hired Jenny instead. She, along with many supporters including Noli Taylor of Island Grown Initiative (IGI), helped salvage materials from the old Edgartown school, including the prep table, the roll-down window, the steam tables, even the sinks. The greater Island community helped her renovate the kitchen in two months, and she got to work. The mission was to cook healthier food and source from as many local resources as possible. It’s safe to say it was the right choice, and there’s no looking back. “It’s been hard but rewarding,” says Jenny.
Children are offered a hot lunch option daily (think herb-roasted chicken or local pollock and haddock chowder) as well as a daily offering of the salad bar and egg, chicken or tuna salad sandwich, and fresh vegetables. The ever-changing salad bar is a lavish offering all its own, with fresh local produce, and scratched cooked, freshly prepared salads that as Jenny says “push the boundaries of flavor.” You might find an apple fennel salad or beet hummus, along with several local grain options, and teachers and students alike load up their plates.
So how does she do it? By 9 am each morning she has the orders in for the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools, which allows her to eliminate food waste as much as possible, and know what she’s up against for the day. Any food not consumed is either reused the following day or composted by IGI along with the help of the students, and it’s something they take seriously. “I’ll see kids fish things out of the garbage that should have been composted or call each other out for not doing it properly.” Clearly, her methods are working.
Jenny prides herself on making approachable food that inspires the students to try new things while setting limits on selections to encourage them to venture outside of their comfort zone. “If we eliminate 17 choices for lunch, the cost goes down, and it allows us to introduce the kids to new flavors.” Of course, living on an island with access to fresh local food helps, and she readily takes advantage of it. In addition to locally caught seafood, Jenny is able to source meat and produce from Beetlebung Farm, The Good Farm, The Grey Barn, Morning Glory Farm, Thimble Farm, Cleveland Farm, and Whippoorwill, and she genuinely appreciates everyone’s contributions to her kitchen.
According to Jenny, it’s a community program that encourages participation and sharing. She’s come to see how it has helped kids to take pride in the presentation of their food and to know where it comes from. “When we’re in here cooking all day and they can smell it in the halls, it’s a sensory experience. They already feel connected to it, and it boosts enrollment.” And the kids aren’t only eating it, they’re cooking it too. “We have kids that ask to help us prepare food and we bring them back there and put them to work.”
Jenny’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. It’s obvious that the students and faculty love her and the rest of the country is taking note too. These days when she’s not in the kitchen she travels throughout New England consulting other schools on how to implement similar programs. “It’s all about getting the kids to eat real food… The options are endless when it comes to feeding kids.”