Schoolwork: Know your veggies, you'll do fine

It's another three-digit scorcher of a summer day in Washington, and the ovens inside the Untouchable Taste Catering storefront aren't making it any cooler.

Despite the heat, the students who work here aren't cutting corners to get out of work faster. One reason could be that it's cookies coming out of those ovens - chocolate chip, macadamia nut, and sugar, destined for a child- and family-services meeting the next morning - and rejects are fair game.

But there's something else going on here. Call it professionalism or pride in getting it done right. There's a snap to the cleanup and an easy banter with the managers, Ernest and Leah Todd, who work alongside the kids.

Their catering business is an arm of See Forever, a nonprofit group that also runs the nearby Maya Angelou Public Charter School. During the school year, Untouchable Taste Catering feeds about 400 kids a day in public charters schools, as well as catering for law firms, US government offices, and even a private party "for someone who works at the White House." During the summer, a group of students works at the restaurant full-time for four weeks. But the purpose for all this chopping, baking, and wrapping is to help Maya Angelou students learn the "life skills" they will need to prosper: getting to work on time, being part of a team, coping with a co-worker who is out of sorts, or just maintaining high standards.

When a student who missed a day of work offers his excuse - "But I worked hard last week!" - it's the kids, not the managers, who respond: "Oh, that's not good enough!" and "You're going to be hearing about this for a long time!"

They're also learning that there's more to eating than fast food. "I ask kids when they come here to name seven vegetables. Most can't. And when you ask them to name those that they eat, then you really see a short list," says Mrs. Todd, who manages the business side. "I say: 'I'm not going to make you eat a zucchini, but you should at least know what one is.'"

Students make $6.15 an hour, with raises for performance says Mr. Todd, the chef. There are certainly faster ways to make money on the street, and no one plans to make a career out of the food-service business. But students say that what's great about this job is that it's a start - and it's safe. "I'm doing something legal.... And I'm not risking my life," says Michael Green, who will start his second year at Maya Angelou this fall.

"In most schools, you have to wait a semester to find out if you're successful. But they accomplish something every day. If you can feed 400 people, you're successful," says Mrs. Todd.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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