Camden Hills Can Not Afford to Feed its Students?

Oftentimes school cafeterias get a bad rep; overcooked, bland broccoli, hot dogs stewing in swampy water — such delightful delicacies leave kids yearning for a sip of chocolate milk, as they play with their food, or perhaps a frozen novelty if they’re lucky. However, at Camden Hills Regional High School, this was far from reality. House-made baked goods ranging from muffins to freshly brewed coffee, and fruit salad to Shepheard’s pie with local beef from Aldermere Farm. Additionally, the foodservice team partnered with the school’s botany class, where food waste is turned into organic compost and the class also planted and harvests organic apple trees. All these necessities ensure students are nourished and prepared to learn.

Whether it’s Eric Scholsser or Michael Pollan, countless research shows how food can play an important role in health and learning. School’s food services play an important role in nutrition and health and have the ability to fight both hunger and obesity.

If you ask most people who their hero is few will say an employee in their school’s cafeteria. However, that was never the case for me. As an alumnus from Camden Hills, I learned first-hand from Susan Wilcox, Camden Hills’ director of food service, the power food has to build a community. I was a sophomore in high school when Wilcox assisted in spear-heading Empty Bowl, the school’s fundraising effort to raise resources for local food pantries. I remember seeing Wilcox working breakfast service early in the morning, and she’d still be there later when I returned to school around 7 p.m. with my family for Empty Bowl. It may have been a 12-hour day, yet Willcox was still smiling, and conducting the efforts of the fundraiser. Additionally, Wilcox donated her time for Veteran’s Day breakfast, Homecoming, The Rotary Club, and Senior Banquet, just to name a few.

As it pertains to myself, after graduating college, I spent the next couple of years as General Manager for some of D.C.’s best and Michelin-rated restaurants where I worked to raise nearly $30,000 annually in partnership with Sips and Suppers, for local soup kitchens. This work was in large part influenced by the hard efforts I saw Wilcox do daily.

Camden Hills has decided to eliminate the food service director position — Wilcox’s position, the one that helped to inspire me to enter the restaurant world, the one so integral to the community. The School Board plans to combine the food service position with the director of transportation role. While at first, this may seem like a helpful, even smart decision in saving money, time, manpower, you name it, but it ignores one key fact — common sense. Food service workers are already stretched too thin operating a kitchen in the middle of a pandemic. During the COVID-19 lockdown, food service workers individually package food and distribute it to satellite locations throughout the school district, in an attempt to ensure students are fed. Wilcox herself, still works the kitchen, washes dishes, cooks, drafts finance reports, writes food menus.

Most find cooking Thanksgiving dinner, cooking for 10 or so people, to be challenging, Wilcox and her dedicated team cook for over 800 students and staff daily — without breaking a sweat. Eliminating the director of food service position and combining it with an “expert of transportation,” allowing for less focus in both areas and more room for error, could be a catastrophe, for feeding our students and connecting our community. What is the point of spending millions in new public budlings, for the community if we can’t afford to staff said buildings with dedicated people whose mission is to feed and build community?

Lucas Kuhn