BRUNSWICK — Early Monday morning, Harpswell Coastal Academy junior Karli Clark was peeling onions and chopping garlic for a stir fry that would feed 50 of her classmates.
Clark is a paid intern at New Beet Market’s school lunch program, a low-profit cafe that partners with HCA to provide locally sourced, healthy lunches to the charter school’s Brunswick Landing campus.
Through the program, Clark is learning academic and industry-specific skills that earn credits toward graduation; she’s also helping New Beet pull off what co-founder Jamie Pacheco calls the “really, really hard” task of providing nutritious, local school lunches at an affordable price.
Pacheco, who worked in commercial kitchens before starting New Beet, said 33 percent of the retail cost of a meal typically represents actual food costs. The remaining two-thirds cover labor and overhead – and hopefully, some profit.
Normally, if a restaurant wants to use local ingredients – which usually increases the cost of ingredients – it could raise retail prices.
Not so for a school lunch, the cost for which is set by the school and cannot exceed $3.50 per student. After subtracting a $1.50 for overhead, Pacheco said that leaves her staff and interns with about $2 per student to create a healthy, appetizing meal.
With help from Clark, that challenge falls on Alida Belcher, who manages the lunch program.
“When I first heard that ($2 figure), I thought, that’s really not a lot of money,” Belcher said. “But then again, it’s just another way of being creative.”
Belcher was helping Clark with the onions on Monday. Later that morning, she asked Clark to prepare a mixture of black and kidney beans and a fresh salsa. Burritos were on the next day’s menu.
Belcher said the average public school meal – which often caters to the carbohydrate-driven tastes of picky teenagers – could better promote “nutrition and the joy of eating,” a standard by which her eclectic, seasonal menus abide.
Creativity and budgeting sometimes go hand-in-hand. Keeping in mind the economies of scale, Belcher and Pacheco collaborate on ingredients to get the best prices on local ingredients.
Pacheco knows that if she orders a larger quantity of say, cauliflower, the the total price will go down. It’s then up to Belcher to find a way to incorporate the extra cauliflower into a lunch menu, like the stir fry she was preparing for Monday’s lunch.
Ultimately, the puzzle makes for a good homework assignment, and Clark said she spends some of her internship in the back office, planning menus.
HCA’s standards-based model means that the time Clark spends on pricing ingredients and menu planning – kitchen accounting, put another way – count toward the quantitative requirements she needs to graduate.
“I’m coming up with menus and pricing them out and seeing if we can do them,” Clark said of her unconventional classroom, which, in addition to providing traditional academic exercises, serves an important function in New Beet’s busy kitchen.
“I think that people are surprised that as a teenager, I can juggle that,” she said, emphasizing that she is learning valuable critical thinking skills by working in a kitchen – skills like time management.
“I try to give (interns) things that they feel responsible for,” Pacheco added, noting that another intern, Chris, takes care of the beverage order in addition to washing dishes.
For Clark, her internship is away of expanding the bounds of the classroom. “When I’m here,” she said, “I’m learning about the industry I want to be in.”