In a normal school year, over 500 of Mercersburg Academy’s students, faculty members and staff would gather in the dining hall for family style meals every day. An integral part of the boarding school experience is being able to share meals with friends, teachers, and students from other grades whom one might not get the chance to meet otherwise. The kitchen staff always does an excellent job of creating food that everyone in the community enjoys; however, during the COVID-19 pandemic, serving and preparing food for our community looks a lot different.
Ashley Green, a member of the Meriwether Godsey kitchen management team, describes the troubles of preparing food in this new normal, saying, “It is difficult for us to do what we love to do, which is have beautiful food.” As a result of the school’s efforts to restrict any possible spread of the virus, portions now have to be individually boxed and covered in plastic. With the new “grab and go” system, the kitchen staff has had to come up with meals that will be easy to safely package and distribute. Green says, “We don’t have a lot of opportunities to do things like a salad, soup, or sandwich bar just because of how many hands have to go through those things.”
The team packs 600 meals per period, and it takes them around 24 to 36 hours before each meal is ready to be served. Green explains, “We’re chopping veggies almost two days in advance, cooking a couple hours in advance, and packing lunch by nine for service at eleven.” Normally weekends are relatively slower and there will be a lot of leftovers, but the served meals that are really popular, such as hot dogs, chicken fingers, or pizza, tend to run out quickly.
One of the many obstacles the dining staff has had to overcome was deciding how to produce and provide meals for the community while maintaining safety regulations. Their corporate headquarters, located in Lynchburg, Virginia, created a structured six-week menu cycle, meaning that ideally meals are not repeated before six weeks have passed. She states, “Obviously with COVID things have changed a lot, but we have a really great database that we get to pull from.” In previous years, the kitchen staff had help from the students and faculty with the blue and white coat system which delivered food to the tables and properly disposed of any leftovers. Unfortunately, the new system comes with the challenges of throwing away uneaten food and disposing of trash and recycling properly.
With all the preparation that goes into feeding everyone, shifts for workers start a lot earlier and end a lot later than the actual time of the meal. The morning rotation starts at 4:30 a.m. and goes through lunch. Those on the dinner shifts are finishing up or usually still working until almost 8:30 p.m. Green explains that there are twenty workers in the kitchens at once – “three utilities, four cooks, two sou-chefs, and about eight front-of-house, as well as three on the management team: myself, our executive chef, and the director.”
During the normal school year, we tend to take for granted the work that the Mercersburg kitchen staff does for the community, but especially during these uncertain and challenging times we need to show our gratitude to them. Without their hard work and ceaseless dedication to providing healthy and delicious food options for the whole school, Mercersburg would certainly not be the same. Although everyone misses the traditional family style meals this year, we are all adjusting to the loss of this tradition the best way that we can.