Inquirer Editorial: High pay for school 'chef' an unappetizing move

Gloria Bonilla-Santiago
Gloria Bonilla-Santiago
Posted: February 22, 2013

Remember when school cafeterias were run by the "lunchroom lady" or a male counterpart? No doubt many still are. And in most cases, that term likely falls far short of describing the nutritionist responsible for what students eat. But how many schools do you know with an executive chef?

Probably at least one, after news stories this week about the food-service boss at Camden's LEAP Academy University Charter School. It might be expected if a public school in tony Haddonfield or affluent Cherry Hill had a chef. But Camden, probably the poorest city in New Jersey?

It's not that Camden children's meals shouldn't be as good as any other schoolchild's. But there's no evidence that having a chef has made them any better. A comparison of cafeteria menus would include a lot of the same items - grilled-cheese sandwiches, soup, applesauce, etc.

More important than what the food service manager is called, though, is how much the chef at LEAP Academy makes - $95,000, thanks to the $24,000 raise he just received to serve meals to about 1,000 students.

The food service director for the entire Pennsauken School District, which has 5,603 students, makes $76,203. And Cherry Hill's food service chief, not chef, makes $50,000 to serve meals in that 13,000-student district.

Even though LEAP's food budget is mostly paid through funds received from the federal school breakfast and lunch programs, it is unsettling to see its chef being paid so much. Defenders of Michele Pastorello's pay say he also talks to the children about fruits and vegetables, but that doesn't make him a teacher.

One can't help but wonder whether the chef would be so highly paid if the woman he is in a "committed relationship" with weren't LEAP Academy founder and chairwoman Gloria Bonilla-Santiago. LEAP's new food-service contract with Metz Culinary Management required it to retain Pastorello and give him the raise.

It's a sad commentary that many parents of LEAP students rushed to defend their school's having an overly paid chef. In their minds, it seems, a school that offers so much more for children than a regular Camden public school can do no wrong.

It's time for parents of charter children to be more discerning and demanding. It's great that their children are in schools that are safer, cleaner, and more involved with parents. But the data so far, in particular in Camden, show the charters are not doing any better than regular public schools academically.

Hiring a chef can't be defended as helping charters fulfill the need for viable education alternatives.

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