When it comes to culinary training, Owego Free Academy’s Head Cook, Darin Phillips got the best; prior to joining the food service staff at the Southern Tier school, he was a cook in the Army, serving soldiers three squares a day in South Korea.
Phillips, a member of the Owego-Apalachin Employees Association, says cooking for the Army is “pretty much the same” as cooking for a secondary school; he said his clients at the school are smaller, but no less enthusiastic.
“In the Army, the food was actually very good, and the soldiers loved coming through the line. They were just as excited as the kids are here,” Phillips says.
Phillips feeds between 300 and 350 students a day during the school year. During the summer, he and his team are part of a busy food program where they serve 5,000 hungry kids' breakfast and 7,000 kids' lunch.
Phillips knows his role at the school is an important one. For many students, the cafeteria is a place of comfort and safety and where they will get most of their calories for that day. Fifty-one percent of students at the school qualify for free lunch.
In September, the USDA expanded access to the Community Eligibility Provision by lowering the threshold to qualify from 40 percent to 25 percent, without submitting a household education. As a result of that, and the state budget increase of $134.6 million to expand access to free meals, all 1,993 district students will have access to free meals.
“This year, we are a CEP school, so every student in this district gets free breakfast and lunch this year. We’re super excited about it,” he said.
Phillips said participation will increase, but the staff is prepared. By cooking in large batches, they can serve multiple lunch shifts and one grab-and-go breakfast per day.
His day begins early; he is usually at work by 5 a.m. Of course, that is nothing compared to his time as an Army cook, when he would work from 2:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. at night. “They told us it would be rough going, and it was,” he said. “I only got a handful of days off the whole time I was there.”
Still, Phillips said overall, he enjoyed his enlistment, which lasted from 2006 to 2010.
Following South Korea, Phillips was deployed to Afghanistan. “That’s when it really got exciting for me,” he said. Phillips was overawed by the landscape of the country. “Every morning, I’d brush my teeth outside the tent, and I’d look up at these snowcapped mountains, and I would tell myself, ‘Don’t you ever forget this. Don’t ever forget it.’ And I haven’t.”
For Phillips, who was born and raised in nearby Barton, N.Y., the military gave him the opportunity to see the world, and even if it came with danger – Phillips was driving an MRAP to a smaller base in the mountains when his vehicle was blown up by an IED. He suffered a facial wound and concussion, but he and his comrades emerged otherwise unscathed – he said his experience in the service was worth it.
“I got to meet people from all over. Even as far back as basic training, there were people from all different places,” he said. “Coming from a tiny town in New York, it was great to meet all those new people. You know, we might not always get along, we might butt heads sometimes, but you got to understand where they were coming from, and that’s important. That helps me even now.”
Phillips also finds purpose in helping other people, whether it’s through building schools in Afghanistan or keeping kids fed in Owego. “With the kids now, it’s really nice,” he said. “I’m doing a service, and you can tell they really appreciate it.”