Our main job as a school district is to educate students, but they can’t do their best learning if they’re hungry. That’s why our Food Service team is such an integral part of our educational mission.

Xavier Botana is the superintendent of Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at [email protected]ortlandschools.org.

More than half the students who attend Portland Public Schools come from food-insecure families. They depend on the thousands of nutritious meals our Food Service team serves each day. School breakfast and lunch not only keep students’ hunger at bay, but they help them realize their full learning potential.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored how essential our Food Service team is.

Even when our buildings were closed, a herculean effort by this team ensured families could get a nutritious bagged breakfast and lunch each day at outdoor food sites. As our schools went hybrid, the team went hybrid, too, serving students both in school and at pickup sites. We can’t thank team members enough for their unflagging efforts to ensure our students didn’t go hungry.

This month, as I conclude my series about outstanding PPS staff, I’m recognizing Food Service team member Jessica Puzak. Jess, cafeteria team leader at Rowe Elementary School, exemplifies the dedication and service these crucial staff members bring to their jobs.

Puzak

Jess, who grew up in Massachusetts, completed 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 nonprofit working with communities to connect kids to healthy food in school. In 2017, as a FoodCorps service member with Cultivating Community, Jess began teaching Rowe students about gardening, cooking and nutrition before becoming cafeteria team leader in 2018. In 2019, she also became the school’s garden coordinator, a position supported by Rowe’s PTO. Here’s more about Jess:

How did you get interested in growing food?

As a kid, I became fascinated with how you could put a seed in the soil and then something magical would grow. Also, my nana in New Hampshire had a beautiful garden. We were very close. She passed when I was in high school, and I became almost obsessed with flowers and growing vegetables.

What led you to join the Food Service team?

As a FoodCorps service member, I partnered with Food Service on taste tests and promoting the school lunch program. When the team leader job opened up, I decided that could be really cool because it’s an opportunity to continue some of the work I was already doing around food with school kids, and I could learn how school meals work in reality.

What do cafeteria team leaders do?

We’re responsible for providing meals that meet all the USDA requirements – students need a veggie, fruit, a grain and protein and they need milk available. I’m the point person for making sure that happens effectively and to safe standards, and also making sure school breakfasts are delivered to classrooms. There’s a lot of accounting and recording keeping, so it’s a very busy, nonstop shift.

How did COVID impact your job?

My goodness, it was really something how fast we had to completely restructure, but we did it. Something amazing came out of that experience this past year: It really highlighted how essential school food actually is.

What drives you?

What gets me out of bed every day is that there are hundreds of children counting on me to feed them. Also, if kids are hungry, there’s no way they’re focusing on their learning. In offering quality fresh food, we are inherently creating more equity in our schools. That’s motivating for me.

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