Chef Paul Correnty in the Bromfield kitchen. (Photo by Tim Clark)
When no one knows exactly what to do, you should keep doing what you do best. That seems to be the motto that Paul Correnty—Harvard School District’s Chef Paul—is following while schools are closed.
Chef Paul is cooking. Every weekday, he and a rotating crew of two or three regular cafeteria workers are in the Bromfield School kitchen, making casseroles, quiches, soups, and—yes!—chocolate chip cookies. (Attendance is optional for the staff, Chef Paul said in a phone interview, but many are choosing to work when possible.)
Like the tempting kitchen aromas that float through the whole house, the output of Chef Paul’s kitchen spreads into the Harvard community in the form of lunches for students in need, a local home health care group for seniors, and hearty meals for his online customers (whose purchases help support the whole program).
About 50 students in the Harvard schools qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches and free milk under a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that reimburses the district for some of the costs. While schools are closed, however, only districts where more than half the students are in the free lunch program will continue to receive that federal assistance, so Harvard does not qualify for federal help now.
Chef Paul said he considered the federal decision unfair to Harvard students who may lack nutritious lunches while they are at home. He and Superintendent Linda Dwight discussed the issue and decided the lunch program should “absolutely” continue, he said. Many towns across the country have made the same choice, according to the nonprofit School Nutrition Association’s website.
The federal standards for “grab and go” lunches during school closures suggest bologna sandwiches, granola bars, and other simple fare—not always the most nutritious. Chef Paul said, “We weren’t going to do that.” So he began to put together meals of turkey-and-rice soup, pasta with meat sauce, and chicken chili with sweet potatoes.
Then, when the daily specials are packed for delivery, Chef Paul gets into the school van and drives the lunches to a drop-off site in Devens and to some homes farther west.
“People have been great,” Chef Paul said, with many offering donations. So far, donations have not been necessary, he said, but they probably will be needed if, as expected, the school shutdown continues.
“When you’re cooking for a few, it’s no harder to cook for a lot,” Chef Paul said. And so he has added the lunch entrees to his online soup choices for those who have joined his email list (firstname.lastname@example.org). They can purchase a jar of soup, and now some entrees as well, every other Thursday with cash or a check (no credit cards). Those sales help to support the student lunch program, too.
In the past, people who ordered his soups online have gone into the cafeteria to pay and pick up their containers of soup. But given the current need for social distancing, Chef Paul is arranging a new system. People will be able to pick up their orders from their cars at a curbside tent in the Bromfield School driveway.
“In tough times, people rally round,” Chef Paul said. “What else are you going to do?” For him, the answer is that he’s going to keep doing what he does so well.