Director of Food Service, Chicopee Public Schools; Age 39
It’s called the ‘Curbside Cafeteria.’ That’s the name now attached to an intriguing concept cooked up by Melanie Wilk and her team at Chicopee Public Schools.
Wilk is the Food Service director at CPS, and she’s constantly looking for new and impactful ways to improve the nutrition and overall health of not only students but all those in this community. Which brings us to the Curbside Cafeteria.
“A lot of families in Chicopee don’t have transportation to get to meal sites — we saw a big need,” said Wilk, who, with her team, was able to purchase a food truck with a Food Security Infrastructure Grant awarded by the state. Starting this summer, it will provide mobile meals to students on their way to school, during after-school activities, or at parks during the summer months — free of charge.
This intersection of nutrition and community is where Wilk’s passion lies. The Chicopee native wasn’t always interested in nutrition, but that changed after relocating to the Big Apple.
“I moved to New York for seven years, and I think that’s where my interest in nutrition kind of sparked,” she explained. “It was a little bit more trendy in New York to know about healthy foods.”
After returning home, Wilk pursued a degree in nutrition at UMass Amherst, although she never dreamed she would end up working for a public school system.
“Nobody intends to end up in food service,” she admitted, but while doing her food-service rotation at Chicopee Public Schools, she realized it was much different than she thought.
“We have a very large farm-to-school program, so we partner with several local farms and distributors in the area to do fresh fruits and veggies,” she recalled. “And that was so interesting to me and so different … that they were trying to provide such fresh and local foods on kids’ trays.”
Shortly after Wilk graduated, she stepped into her what became her dream job. About one year later, the pandemic struck. She mobilized her staff to use a safe drive-up method of serving meals; from March 2020 through June 2021, she and her team served more than 1.5 million free meals to Chicopee families.
Just three years since starting with CPS, Wilk couldn’t imagine herself anywhere else. She is working hard to ensure that hers is not just a food-service program, but a community program with a mission of combating food insecurity and helping children create healthy relationships with food.
— Elizabeth Sears