Not all superheroes wear capes. Some wear aprons.
SAGE Dining Services’ “Fantastic Four” – Chef Vince Freyne, Ginny Atkinson, Thelma Greenway, and Michael Bigglest – have been taking extra-special care of Benedictine Military School’s Cadets, monks, administrators, faculty, and staff throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the coronavirus forced BC to finish the 2019-20 school year via remote learning, Freyne and his SAGE team spent March, April, and May preparing at total of 7,200 lunches for Cadets who were sheltered at home. The lunches were available for pick-up at BC. For Cadets who could not get to the school, members of BC’s faculty and staff delivered the meals to their homes.
In August, BC re-opened its doors with a blended learning model (remote and in-person classes) in which 200 Cadets come to campus three days (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) one week and the other 200 Cadets come to school two days (Tuesday, Thursday). They participate in online learning on the weekdays in which they are not on campus. They rotate the following week so all 400 Cadets have the same number of days on campus at the end of every two weeks. Each day, Freyne and his SAGE team prepare 400-plus meals.
“Coming back to school was a completely different animal this year (2020-21),” Freyne said. “Obviously, with the pre-packaging (of food) and the modified menu that’s still trying to ensure as much variety that we can possibly push through to the boys in order to maintain the integrity of the program, the value perception, the enthusiasm … I guess our goal the whole time was to try and, even though the whole world has changed and they’re aware of it, we’re aware of it, we wanted to make the dining as comfortable or as familiar since, obviously, everything across campus has changed dramatically with the rules and regulations and restrictions. Even though (the rules) still apply in the dining area, we still want there to be some enthusiasm with the food. Pre-packaging and things of that nature are a far cry different from what they’ve been used to in the past. With the exception of the freshmen. They didn’t know any better, obviously. But (Cadets) seem to have adapted. It’s a different world. But that’s true everywhere we go.”
MORE STRATEGIC LUNCH SERVICE
Gone – at least for now – are the days when Cadets raced to the cafeteria and playfully jockeyed for position to be at the front of the lunch line. Now, Cadets (each of them wearing mandatory protective masks) take turns washing their hands or using hand sanitizer at the cafeteria’s entrance. The Cadets are separated into two groups and calmly walk (without touching or horseplay) to different ends of the cafeteria and await their turn to enter through the lunch service doors.
Once inside, Cadets receive a hot meal from a SAGE staffer, volunteer BC parent or BC employee, and when they exit they must remain on their side of the cafeteria, which is divided in half by an imaginary line. If a Cadet would like a salad, yogurt, or sandwich, those items are pre-packaged and available at a portable serving station located between the two serving rooms. Across the cafeteria, in front of the drink machine, is a similar portable serving station exclusively for drinks. Both stations are operated by adults who have completed SAGE’s COVID-19 online training classes.
Cadets are seated two per table. When lunch is finished, Cadets return their black service trays (a new item that was purchased so they can collect as much food as possible going through the line one time) and clean their tables with sanitized wipes before exiting out of the back through two separate doors, one on each half of the cafeteria. This prevents Cadets from having physical contact with the incoming group of the four groups (seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen) that eat lunch daily.
“We’re doing about 240 meals per day for lunch,” said Freyne, whose staff also feeds faculty and staff. “Really, as far as the numbers are concerned, we’re doing the entire student population every day because we’re 400 anyway. Now, it’s just 200 in the seat dining (at lunch) and 200 out the back door dining every day. It’s the same amount.”
Freyne said he hopes to some day return to the way lunch used to be, where there was a line for items such as chili dogs behind the first door, and a line for fancier fare like Indian cuisine behind the second door.
“As far as the hot lines are concerned, we’re running identical entrees,” Freyne said. “We decided to do that because (each class) is spread into two (lines) when they come in (the cafeteria). A boy has no choice as to what line he’s in so we thought it would be redundant to have nachos on one side and fried chicken on the other. Inevitably, (a boy) ends up in the nacho line by default. He doesn’t want to be in this line but he has no choice but to stay in this line. He can’t cross over. So Group A is forced to each nachos and Group B is eating fried chicken. So we just decided to run identical entrees (in both lines) so nobody is being slighted in the least. It seems to be working out pretty well for the time being.
“We hope, when things go back to normal, that we’ll go back to doing two separate entrees,” Freyne continued. “Lunch is always supposed to be a fun time. (Cadets) can let their guard down for 25 minutes, enjoy the time with their friends, and the camaraderie and the whole nine yards. But it’s regimented simply because it has to be, not because anybody wants it to be that way. For their safety and their well-being it just has to be what it is. There has been some fanfare taken away from (lunchtime). It has been a huge learning curve and a challenge in a lot of ways. As much as you would love to come here and have things be the same way they’ve always been, we had to change, too. We had to adapt. We had to evolve.”
MEAL-TO-GO PROGRAM FOR CADETS
BC and SAGE offer a meal-to-go program that enables Cadets, at the end of the school day, to pick up a boxed meal to take home.
“We’re doing the entire (BC student) population, so we’re doing 200 meals every afternoon,” Freyne said. “At 3 p.m., when the boys are dismissed, we’ll get a small influx of them that come over here, anywhere from 15 to 20. It’s for anybody on campus that day. For example, if you come to school on Monday and you’re off (campus) on Tuesday, you’re welcome to stop and get your meal.”
When a Cadet attends class Monday at BC then he will attend class Tuesday online. At the end of the school day Monday, he has the option of taking home a meal so he has something for lunch Tuesday at home. Being teenage boys, their meals often are eaten in the parking lot and never reach their home for the next day’s consumption.
“Some of the boys finish up (school activities) in the evening, especially football practice,” Freyne said. “By that time, they’re famished. They burn off all those calories so they’re looking for something quick (to eat). A lot of times, they will just resort to the P.M. to-go meal, which is allocated for the following day, but when a boy eats his meal, that’s his prerogative. We run the gamut from A-to-Z on that. We try to make it as boy-friendly as possible. We try to accommodate it, not so much the center-of-the-plate entrée, because we find that the vast majority of them, I’d day probably 80 percent, they want to eat it now. They’re not interested in taking it home. Some of them do but that P.M. bunch that’s finishing up on the field with Danny (Britt)? No, they want to eat it right now. So we try to accommodate that. For the P.M. bunch, we don’t have a microwave. (The food) is cold set. There’s nothing we can do about that. In order to maintain the integrity of the food, time and temperature, safety and sanitation, everything is cold set.”
Freyne said the meal-to-go plan is critical because it ensures that each Cadet has a meal to eat on weekdays when that Cadet is not on campus.
AN INCREASED LABOR OF LOVE
Benedictine Military School Principal Jacob Horne said Freyne, Atkinson, Greenway (who is Atkinson’s mother), and Bigglest play a critical role in BC’s functionality every day.
“Benedictine Military School has been known for well over a century for many different things,” Horne said. “It is hard to think of BC today and to not think of Chef Vince and the fantastic meals and dining experience that he and his crew have provided our young men, faculty, and staff. I have traveled to schools all over and I cannot remember one that holds a candle to what Chef and his crew create daily. Anyone who knows Chef knows that he is passionate. Though many have witnessed his passion about the quality of meals, the preparation, the execution of service, and the presentation, few have seen what ignites that passion. It is the boys. If you ever hear Chef talk about the boys and how he desires to cater to their likes and how he seeks to expand their palates, it is infectious. Chef and his crew love BC, and the dining program that they provide is a sincere demonstration of that love.”
The labor behind that love has increased. COVID-19 has forced Freyne and his team to document all of their actions for the sake of safety.
“We’re under a very strict set of guidelines from SAGE,” Freyne said. “Every morning we come in, we all take each other’s temperature. We record it in a log. We wear the facemasks, the gloves, continuously throughout the course of the day. Our orders are received on the dock. They (delivery drivers) don’t come in the building. There have been a lot of things that have changed for us as well. We have sanitation and safety logs beyond the normal. Now, every time we sanitize, which is throughout the course of the day with a peroxide solution, all that gets recorded. Everything gets recorded. Every piece of equipment, every door handle, every oven handle, everything gets recorded as far as how many times a day we do it and who did it, to try and maintain as much balance as we can.
“Definitely, the dynamics have changed tremendously for us because we’re still a small crew,” Freyne continued. “We’ve really had to re-evaluate our time. Space is an issue for us as well. We can make product all day long but where are we going to put it? That poses a problem. Coca-Cola has been kind enough to allow us to use (a cooler) in the interim (for to-go meals) but as far as the back of the house is concerned, all these packaged salads, sandwiches, everything that you see every day (for lunch), takes up a tremendous amount of space that we just don’t have. So it’s been a facilities challenge but overall we haven’t really hit a pitfall or a wall anywhere where we’ve just been forced out of not being able to do what the program demands and asks that we do.”
Freyne said daily assistance from BC parents and employees has been a blessing.
“It’s been a great asset to have them participate so willingly as well,” Freyne said. “They all took a COVID training class prior to (helping), much like the moms who are lending assistance right now on the line. They have to follow the same compliance that myself and my staff do. They are tested every day when they come in as well. First thing they do when they hit the back door, we get their temperature. We record it in the log. Safety and sanitation have always been a staple in kitchens but now it just takes on a completely different light.”