Meet the Women Feeding an Entire Student Body
February 10, 2022
Six Hands, 600 Meals
Behind the walls of West Albany’s kitchen, three women efficiently layer chicken and hamburger patties onto hundreds of buns one by one, anticipating the cascade of hungry high school students to come in less than an hour.
Not long after the pandemic started, West received financial aid for the purpose of providing free lunches for students. With the burden of financial troubles eliminated, the number of students flooding into the cafeteria to grab a bite to eat during lunch rapidly increased to almost three times the amount before COVID-19. More kids being provided with food is ultimately a positive situation, but it also necessitates busier work days for the kitchen staff.
At 9:30 a.m. sharp, kitchen manager Kimberly Hill and her coworkers Mary Gaspard and Donna Affinito get to work on putting together anywhere from 300 to 670 lunches for the day, depending on the insight Hill gains from the number of leftover lunches from previous days. The volume of students that get lunches from the kitchen can fluctuate wildly from week to week, so the amount of food that needs to be ordered at the beginning of the week is usually a guessing game.
The trio has made a variety of main courses this year, in both sack lunch and hot lunch form. Providing a steady stream of high schoolers with food is no small feat, but the kitchen staff has a quick and structured system to keep everything running smoothly.
Nacho chips are scooped into their paper dishes and buns are laid out on the massive steel island in the kitchen, creating a blanket of bread. Finished sandwiches are stacked into bins and placed in the buffet with a covering before lunch or wrapped and packed in a brown paper bag for sack lunches. The rhythm of productivity becomes a back-and-forth between the island in the kitchen and the buffet area, and before long, the three women are fully prepared for lunch. In addition to the responsibility of making the main course, the buffet is fully stocked with sauces, utensils, milk, and fruit for kids to take.
The buffet is aided by a group of 12 students in addition to the kitchen staff during lunch to help serve the freshly prepared food.
While the rush of the free lunch crowd is overwhelming at times, Hill has not yet asked for additional staff to help with kitchen prep work. The unpredictable patterns of how many kids will take a lunch from week to week makes her hesitant to request more workers, especially because her and her coworkers are managing well with their current system. For the time being, the trio of hard-working kitchen staff resolves to take on the daily responsibilities that come with preparing food for hundreds of high school students.
Behind the walls of West Albany’s kitchen, these three women continue to overcome the stressors of a mid-pandemic year to provide hundreds of hungry kids with meals, day after day.
Kimberly Hill arrives at school at 6 a.m. She gets right to work, following a strict schedule that she can’t fall behind on. It’s a Monday, so on top of being tasked with planning every meal down to the number of cheese slices, she has to order fresh food for next week. She sends emails, records stock, prints out and delivers menus, plans some more. Finally, she steps out onto the floor to start making lunch, all before 9:30 in the morning.
Hill has worked as West’s kitchen manager for the past five years, helping the school through big events such as the pandemic and moving to free school lunch. But even through thick and thin, she continues to run the kitchen in a lighthearted atmosphere.
“She’s so cheerful and always upbeat, which I love,” said Donna Affinito, her coworker of six years. “She makes me laugh…she’s just a character.”
But she hasn’t always worked exclusively at West; she’s actually been in the industry for over a decade. Though she’s successful today, Hill had never actually intended to be a kitchen manager. Her career actually started out as a surprising opportunity.
“When my kids were little they were both going to Periwinkle [Elementary School], and I would volunteer there all the time,” Hill said. “The lady that worked there asked if I would ever be interested in working in a kitchen. I never thought about it, you know, because I was a stay at home mom…so I was like, ‘Yeah, I would love to try it out.’”
Since her time at Periwinkle, Hill has worked her way up the food chain, beginning at elementary schools, then transitioning to middle, and finally landing her current job in a high school. With the new addition of the blue building, she enjoys managing an extensive kitchen complete with updated appliances and a personal office. However, her time working in school kitchens started off in a much more humble space.
“I worked at Oak Grove [Elementary School] before going to Memorial [Middle School], and I literally worked in a gym with carpeted walls. It was horrible,” Hill recounts. “I had a table, a stove, and a small refrigerator…I remember once I was trying to get a pizza out of the oven, and a ball came flying over.”
But even with dangerous projectiles flying around her space, Hill’s favorite part of the job has always been getting to interact with the students at the schools she works at. Because of her substantial experience in working in the kitchens, she’s been able to form connections with many students as they move up through schools together. She worked with elementary schoolers at Periwinkle her first year in the kitchen; she just recently watched them graduate, serving them in both elementary and high school, and she currently enjoys seeing the students from her Oak Grove experience. But Hill welcomes all students, regardless of whether or not she recognizes them.
“They’re just the highlight of the day, to be honest…They’re happy to be here. And plus, I feed them, so they’re always happy. If they get cranky, we just send them back to their teacher,” Hill joked.
And students themselves seem to share the same attitude towards the kitchen manager. Junior Madison Wheeler helps to serve lunch along with around eleven other students, working with Hill almost every day of the school week.
“She’s very nice, very relaxed and more than happy to help with anything,” Wheeler said about Hill. “Be it school drama, kitchen drama, life drama. She’s always willing to lend an ear.”
On the flipside, her love for the students can also be the hardest part of the job. Hill has found that denying students any food does not come easily to her. Prior to the introduction of free school lunches, Hill had an especially hard time seeing kids foregoing the meal.
“The hardest part [about my job] is definitely having to tell kids no. If they want, you know, like five chocolate milks, there’s nothing I can do. But I’m hoping they’re eating,” said Hill. “Back before when it was paid lunch…I would do everything I could to feed the kid[s], even if I had to take [money] out of my own pocket.”