Monique Pruitt: Feeding Children During the Crisis

“We served well over 5 million meals during the pandemic,” says Monique Pruitt, a field coordinator for Food and Nutrition Services for Boston Public Schools (BPS). “We field coordinators never took a break because we knew how important it was. It was an eye opener.”

As a field coordinator, Monique is responsible for feeding children from the area of Boston encompassing Roxbury, West Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. During the pandemic, each coordinator had at least three super sites and “toggled back and forth providing support and service to staff.”

“Approximately 12 years ago, Food and Nutrition Services qualified for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), allowing for all students to eat for free,” she explains. “It’s awesome.”

In the last few years, the pandemic overwhelmed family budgets and drove up food prices throughout the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Most of the burden fell on Black and Hispanic communities like those Monique serves.

“We fed whole families throughout the city daily,” she says. “A number of my sites were set up as family food sites or super sites. We were there handing out breakfast and lunch every day. On Fridays, meals were given to students for the weekend. Thanks to the kindness of teachers and other school personnel, meals were delivered to families that had no means of transportation. For some families, school is the only source of food.”

Volunteers came not only from the BPS community, but from community agencies.  There was help from not-for-profits like Catie’s Closet Toiletries, which provided personal care items. 

Much additional assistance came from the city of Boston. Many of the families served were not native English language speakers, but first spoke Haitian Creole, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian or Cape Verdean.  

Today, as the pandemic declines, the challenge continues to be great due to rising staff shortages. These have increased due to retirements, career changes and resignations or “quiet quitting.” The impact on operations is considerable. The sites had started off with vended meals, then some super sites transitioned to cooking. Monique says, “If I have to roll up my own sleeves and cook and wash dishes to make sure 400 kids in a school eat, I do it.”

The dedication of her colleagues moves her deeply. It’s no surprise then that Monique is a passionate unionist, an active member of the Boston Association of School Administrators and Supervisors (BASAS), AFSA Local 6. “Clearly, a subtle but persistent union-busting is going on,” she says. “I have witnessed where a position that was once a union position has now become a managerial position through the rewriting of the job description. 

“A lot of people see the outcome of the union effort, but they don’t see the struggle. I feel it, I witness it, I know it.”

Although she discusses her responsibilities with plenty of enthusiasm, she didn’t prepare for this line of work. She earned a B.A. in human services and an M.B.A. in management and intended to work professionally with senior citizens. “Things happen,” she says.

Fortunately, she loves food, which is central to Caribbean culture. At 11 she and her family moved from Trinidad to New York and later to Boston to live with an uncle. Her great grandmother, Famit, introduced her to all kinds of fruits and vegetables while she lived in Trinidad. When they migrated to the United States, that food became more plentiful. As Monique watched school nutrition evolve and improve over time, she could relate to the emphasis on produce. Her family was big on greens, white yams and plantains. “They all live till their late 90s or 100,” she says.

Obama-era nutrition policies for school meals radically improved diets. USDA guidelines got tougher. The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, heralded by first lady Michelle Obama, affected the overall nutritional quality of school meals actually “eaten” by students, rather than meals served.  “You have to check out the trash cans,” Monique laughs.

“You’ve got to be realistic. It’s a fine balance.  There is a heightened awareness of eating healthy and making healthy choices," she says. "This came about with regard to the obesity crisis among school-age children. No more salt and refined sugar. But if we go too healthy, the kids will resist change.”

“We do taste testing with the children and get a yay or a nay. Pizza is always a yay, but then we have to come up with a whole wheat crust that tastes good. Macaroni and cheese are big, but we’ve changed to whole wheat macaroni.”

Because of cultural sensitivity, they have introduced rice and beans and curries. These foods are familiar to many of the children, as they are to Monique.

“I love to cook,” she says. “I cook rice and curry and barbeque, and I make a mean fried turkey.” With her husband Lydell and three children, Travis, Myles and Aliyah, she has spent plenty of time in her own kitchen in Hyde Park. Today, Travis is in information technology, Myles in medical technology and Aliyah is studying fashion design at Massachusetts College for the Arts—and has just returned from working on her portfolio in Paris and Belgium.

“The food and nutrition coordinators are my work family, but we did not socialize much during the pandemic,” Monique says. “Probably four weeks would pass before I got a glimpse of my work family. Thank God for Zoom!”

As she thinks about them, she says, “My superheroes are my BASAS family, my union family, within Food and Nutrition Services.  Real heroes to me are the staff who come to work every day, who show up in the blink of an eye. We worked tirelessly to make sure our families got fed during this crisis.”