The Student News Site of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South

The Pirate's Eye

The Student News Site of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South

The Pirate's Eye

The Student News Site of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South

The Pirate's Eye

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Behind the scenes with South’s cafeteria staff


South’s cafeteria staff in the kitchen. Left to right: Ms. Donna Gilbert, Ms. Sherry Feole, Ms. Rosa Marquez, Ms. Perla Juarez, Ms. Wei Lim, Ms. Sarah Naidu. PHOTO BY MANIKA NIWAS (’25)

The clock strikes 10:50 a.m, and we run to the cafeteria, scramble to find chairs or rush to get a place in the lunch line. The smell of french fries and pizza lures us to the serving areas.

What we devour in minutes is the result of careful preparation and organization by District Food Service Manager Tony Kowalak and Lead Cook Ms. Donna Gilbert.

“I’m a chef by trade,” said Ms. Gilbert.

Ms. Gilbert owned two of her own restaurants: Donna Marie’s Kitchen located in Hamilton Township and the Good Times Tavern in North Jersey. After running her own restaurants for over 20 years, she came to South where she has been working for 16 years.
Each day Ms. Gilbert and her six person staff –Ms. Sherry Feole, Ms. Wei Lim, Ms. Sarah Naidu, Ms. Rosa Marquez, Ms. Perla Juarez Marquez, and Ms. Kris Stewart–prepare the meals for the 400 students who buy lunch.

To prepare for lunch each day, Ms. Gilbert and Ms. Feole come to school at 6:00 a.m. The remaining four staff members arrive by 8:00 a.m.

I visited the kitchen, located in the maintenance hallway in commons 3, around 7:30 a.m. before winter break and saw Ms. Lim preparing fresh sandwiches for lunch. As I turned the kitchen corner the smell of chocolate chip cookies enticed me toward Ms. Marquez, who was pulling freshly baked treats out of the oven.

By 10:30 a.m., all meals are prepared and the staff brings the food into the kitchen.

“We have to wheel the food out into warming boxes every day,” said Ms. Gilbert.

Since the kitchen is not attached to the serving pods, the cafeteria staff does not have access to it during the lunch block. This means that they have to prepare and wrap all meals since they do not have access to the kitchen to make food during the lunch block.

During the lunch period four of the staff members work at the cash register and the rest work as servers. Information from the cash register is used to help Ms. Gilbert with her logging later in the day.

Ms. Gilbert logs how much food was sold, how much money was made, and how much food was wasted. Her documentation is then organized into binders and files in her office.

By 1:30 the staff has finished cleaning up and is ready to leave.

While Ms. Gilbert and her staff work from inside the kitchen, Mr. Kowalak works from outside of it. His job as District Food Service Manager includes coordinating with food service company Sodexo, and implementing programs and equipment to school cafeterias.

Mr. Kowalak grew up in Monmouth, New Jersey. He attended Mercer County Community College, Community College of Denver and Brookdale Community College before attending West Chester University in Pennsylvania for a Professional Studies degree with a minor in nutrition and communications.

“I’m the liaison between the district and the food service [Sodexo],” said Mr. Kowalak.

He started working at South in 2014, left in 2018 and came back in 2021.

Mr. Kowalak said, “What the food service department makes, we have to spend. So we have to use it to invest into the schools.”

Recently, Mr. Kowalak worked on a project to replace the half freezer and half refrigerator in the kitchen to make a whole new refrigerator that is double the size. He hopes to get a puncher oven (a commercial size oven) and a panini grill in the future. We can also expect to see a food truck that runs between South and North in the coming year.

Mr. Kowalak is also sensitive to the dietary needs of the students and is continuing to work to add vegetarian and Halal items. He has to find a way to stay within the school nutrition requirements when adding items to the menu.

“We have to offer protein with every meal,” said Mr. Kowalak. “For vegetarian meals, that’s hard, because everything ends up being cheese.”

Finding vegetarian items that fulfill school nutrition guidelines is also difficult because they can be expensive. Mr. Kowalak obtained a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture and NJ State for Sodexo to spend on locally produced food, much of which were vegetables. This helped the cafeteria sell nutritious meals.

District Food Service Manager Mr. Tony Kowalak. PHOTO BY MR. TONY KOWALAK

Mr. Kowalak entered South and North in the national Healthy High School Challenge. Where each school gets points for the number of healthy meals they sell and meals that are purchased to increase the number of healthier meals sold in the district. Last year, South ranked second in the snack/beverage category for selling and purchasing chips, cookies, and juices. South earned a prize of $2,000 that the student council was able to spend on anything of their choice.

The programs arranged by Mr. Kowalak and Ms. Gilbert make our lunch experience enjoyable. Rarely do we think about how the food in the cafeteria gets made. In 2024, let’s add one more resolution to our list: appreciating South’s cafeteria staff for their good work.

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