School closures across the country have given parents even more hats to wear in their homes than they already had: that of teacher, doctor, if need be, and, if you think about it, lunch lady. With restless kids home all day, parents are faced with newfound challenges, including what they feed their families to keep a household running at its best.
Jenny Devivo endearingly calls herself a lunch lady every day, but she’s a lot more than that. By curating a nationally-recognized food program out of the West Tisbury School on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, her daily life is all about feeding her kindergarten through eight-grade kiddos healthy, practical and vibrant meals.
She’s also a fierce competitor, currently going for the $50,000 prize on the Food Network’s "The Great Food Truck Race."
Team Lunch Ladies, which consists of Devivo and her partners Nisa Webster and Eli Carroll, heads to Las Vegas on tonight’s episode in their school bus-turned-food truck, a choice that Devivo told Dailybreak was the greatest way her team could have been represented.
"During the first episode, when the airplane hangar’s doors were slowly being raised and we glimpsed that school bus as our food truck, I think we realized this was the moment and time and place where we needed to be, and we’ll never forget that," she said. "That, to us, was like opening our favorite birthday present."
Devivo had a lot on her plate (pun very necessary) as it was, but now, with the West Tisbury School closed while the U.S. battles its COVID-19 outbreak, Devivo has pioneered a Grab 'n' Go program out of her cafeteria. Every day, a small team works to cook, package and run breakfast and lunch out to a waiting line of socially-distant cars, where parents pick up simple yet nutritious meals for their children.
"Knowing that I’m still able to do my job without seeing [the kids'] faces, that’s the shining moment," she said.
Staying cost-effective and uncomplicated, Devivo said, is the key to the program’s success; whatever is on hand at the school is what’s used first, with only select ingredients supplemented after the fact. Whatever isn’t provided to parents and kids at the end of the day is donated to the eldery or first responders like the local police force, fire stations or EMS.
"Anyone from any town can come eat with us. We don’t care who you are -- if you’re hungry, we’ll feed you," she said. "We make sure every single piece of food we create and cook in our kitchen on a daily basis is feeding somebody."
Within the Grab 'n' Go program, Devivo and her team are "focusing on flavor, as much fresh produce as possible and scratch cooking," using their already-established program as a guide to make fresh, approachable food available to anyone facing food insecurity at this time.
With easy lunches like stir-fried rice with shrimp or local meatballs with penne and marinara and a side kale salad, Devivo has been able to stick to the cooking and food philosophies she employs in her cafeteria: less is more, and small is huge.
"I cannot stress the fact that less is more, because you can put your heart into it, you can put your soul into it, you can put delicious flavors into it," she said. "We have to just go back to the basics, because then when you get to the big stuff, you appreciate it more."
What Devivo has created at the West Tisbury School is a way to get children more involved in what they’re eating and the healthy choices that they’re making, which she believes, in turn, allows them to create and foster a worthwhile relationship with food and cooking.
"I realized that so many children were eating in their schools like it was going to the mall in a food court, and there were way too many choices and way too many things that they were familiar with that they would gravitate towards instead of being adventurous and trying new things," she said. "Too many choices for young children is confusing. If you give them power early, and they don’t have the capacity to understand what that power entails, you’re doing them a disservice."
These principles, she shared, are something she hopes to spread far and wide someday, which was part of her initiative to apply to "The Great Food Truck Race" to begin with.
"The whole experience was absolutely mind-blowing, because organically, everything fell into place in terms of what our mission was," Devivo said. "When we traveled, we connected with teachers, lunch ladies, students, families, college students...the truck and ourselves as lunch ladies were sort of this serendipitous magnet to being able to share the goodness of real food for not only adults, but for children."
The dream-big plan, ultimately, would be to share her experience with how even the simplest sense of food can bring communities together and her spirit for encouraging healthy habits with as many people as possible.
"My dream has been to travel across the country just doing small things at every school on the planet, if I possibly could. I would do really approachable, simple foods expanding the palate," she shared. "[We would] really just dial in how they could implement a small change, and once that successful small change was in place, then that would be the impetus for them to continue to grow and change and improve and inspire the youth that they’re serving."
Though food and healthy eating may not be at the top everyone’s list right now -- quarantine can really make you want to eat ramen and only ramen -- Devivo stressed that working with what you have, but finding a twist that makes it special, is the best way to ensure you’re doing good by your diet.
"It’s just rearranging that sort of thing in your brain, just going, 'All right, what do I have?' You look online right now and there are all these amazing video tutorials, and everybody’s showing you their recipes and what you can do in your pantry -- well, that’s exactly what we should be doing," she said. "What do I have, what can I make, and then what can I buy?"
More importantly, Devivo shared the importance of making cooking and eating a togetherness thing. Being isolated from friends and family at this time is nerve-wracking and scary for anyone and everyone, but finding time to be in the kitchen together is something most of us can agree is soothing and helpful.
"Whether you have a family or roommates, it really is important to maybe designate a couple hours, even a half hour, to get in the kitchen and create something," she said. "That camaraderie, that communication, that tactile feeling of opening a bag of lettuce or peeling a carrot together -- it really allows you to relax, lower that anxiety and just come together for a special little moment. Cooking not only alleviates stress but it propels your heart. You have such pride."
And that’s something that goes back to children: Making food, and healthy food, at that, an exciting and rewarding part of their day, Devivo says, sets a child up for success in a new and valuable way.
"Encouraging children to eat healthy is allowing them to invest in something at an early age and understand that accountability and their personal investment is key to their longevity and what they're going to bring to the world as they get older," she said. "Tell them the story of that food or a story about the food, so then that gives them a little color and allows them to realize that food is love and giving is powerful and that this can translate to their daily life."
Where to find that inspiration, you ask? Flip on a cooking show and see what new ideas spark.
"Starting small, giving people the opportunity to realize that they can do anything, really is such a magical way of watching people trust themselves and push themselves," Devivo said. "It was a magical platform for us to be able to think outside the lunchbox and explain to people that food matters for kids, and it really doesn’t matter how you do it, you just got to do it."
Catch Team Lunch Ladies on "The Great Food Truck Race" on Thursdays on the Food Network.