High School Students Use Culinary Talents To Take Meals To Mainers In Need

Apr 9, 2020

Around the state extraordinary efforts are underway to help care for people during the pandemic. One example is in Lewiston where high school students with the Regional Technical Center's culinary arts program are making and distributing 400 meals a day to those who either can't get around or who don't feel safe going out in public. It's a student-led initiative that's being supported by donations of all kinds.

Student loading up trays
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

It took root in their tip jar. The 60 students in the culinary arts program regularly serve up lunches and sell to-go dinners in the Green Ladle restaurant during the week. They'd saved up $1300 in tips for an annual school trip to Portland for a fancy meal, but when classes were suspended a few weeks ago, their instructor, Chef Dan Caron, says a student came to him with a question.

"’How many community members could we feed with that $1300?’ And at the time it was 500 people. Within seconds we were communicating through text messaging. They all said, 'Let's do this chef! Let's do this, chef!' and they donated their tips."

Since then, banks and local businesses have contributed to the effort. Chefs from area restaurants are also lending a hand, donning face masks and gloves and working long days alongside the students. The meals are easily reheated — complete dinners like pasta with meatballs, stuffed chicken and vegetables, soups and dessert.

Brianna Hannan is a senior who's working on the pastry line in the Green Ladle's kitchen. She's been accepted to a culinary program at White Mountain Community College in New Hampshire, but unsure what the rest of her school year holds — let alone her first semester of college. This undertaking, she says, is a welcome distraction.

"I think it's awesome because I get to be able to help out people. I'm getting people food that can't get it."

Chef Caron says it costs about $1100 a day to make just over 400 meals. Anyone who is elderly or who has an underlying health condition that makes them vulnerable to the coronavirus is eligible to sign up for delivery. And everything is free of charge.

"When I came into this program, I had the dream of being a chef, but when I'm doing this kind of work, I just can't believe it," says high school senior Walter Jackson.

Jackson was one of the first students to suggest using the tips for the altruistic endeavor. He says helping members of the community has been more rewarding than he could have imagined.

"When we deliver, and I see their faces and how grateful they are, I'm just very proud of what we do."

In Lewiston, Jane Morin has just received a delivery dropped off at her door by Rob Callahan, the director of the Regional Technical Center. Along with alumni of the culinary arts program, instructors and other volunteer drivers, Callahan has picked up a regular route. And Morin is grateful.

"I'm 77, I don't want to be wandering all over the place,” says Morin. “Everything's prepared. No dishes. I get a surprise what I'm going to eat. I love it."

Morin says she was touched that high school students would be so considerate of older people. Her next door neighbor, Robert Bott agrees.

"I think it's been a great, great service that they're doing to the community, especially to the elderly that can't get out as much,” says Bott. “They're a blessing to us and we're very, very thankful for that."

Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

Rob Callahan says students in the culinary program are taught everything from the basics of cooking and culinary to restaurant ownership. But what they're doing right now for the community shows him that they've learned something much more important.

"This is just really humbling. To have students be at the center of this experience really tells you that what you're doing makes a difference and they will be the ones carrying these efforts in the future."

Students have received dozens of thank you cards and cash donations, but they're looking for more. Their goal is to raise enough money to keep making meals until at least May, and they've started a GoFundMe campaign on the Green Ladle's Facebook page.