The Beatles’ song “Let It Be” plays in the background as Gesher Jewish Day School’s chef, Joe LaFountain and his mom, Sara, prepare food for students, faculty and staff. The scene is calm until just after 11 am, when hungry students begin to file in for a 20-minute lunch period. Even then, the mood is pleasant and happy as those who buy lunch reach for a tray and come through the line. Smiles and cheerful banter between the LaFountains and the students are common—not at all what I remember from my school cafeteria days.

Gesher chef Joe LaFountain (left) and his mother Sara

Gesher chef Joe LaFountain (left) and his mother Sara (Photo by Laura Kumin)

Located on a bucolic campus in Fairfax, Virginia, Gesher, a K–8 school, has about 150 students and 30 to 35 faculty and staff. When the longtime head of its lunch program retired earlier this year, the school decided to try something new. It hired the LaFountains to run a lunch program that aims to please while offering healthy options.

Joe, who is almost 20 years old, had worked for several years in food service at Temple Beth-El in Bethesda. He calls cooking his passion and says he “fed up to 700 people at a Shabbat lunch at my prior job, so I feel confident here—I know what to do.” Sara, a mother of five, assists him around the kitchen and keeps track of the many details involved in purchasing, preparing and cleaning up.

The small kosher catering (not full) kitchen is both nut- and sesame-free, to accommodate students with allergies. The LaFontains offer fresh fruit and salad daily and provide second helpings on request. When lunch is a meat meal, there is always a vegetarian option, and they serve bagels every day for those who don’t want to partake of the main dish. Joe also prepares gluten-free pizza and pancakes when those items are on the menu, because there is one student who is gluten-free. Joe and Sara seem to know each student, and although they want students to choose the food that appeals to them, they often encourage them to try new things, especially fruits and vegetables.

Gesher student Leah Litman enjoys freshly baked pizza

Gesher student Leah Litman enjoys freshly baked pizza (Photo by Laura Kumin)

In just a few months, the lunch program went from feeding only eight to ten students per day to one that now regularly provides food for fifty students and three or four teachers. And as holidays approach and bringing lunch from home gets complicated, the number of students and staff who buy lunch can increase to half the school.

Development director Jennifer Scher points out that the lunch program is imbued with Jewish values. Although lunches are supposed to be ordered ahead of time (online or by phone or email), Joe and Sara never turn away a student who has forgotten or lost their lunch. The school maintains a vegetable garden near its building through the Gesher Green Program. After students harvested the vegetables this spring, Joe and Sara used them in the lunches. Also, as part of the school’s Green Program, when they are done eating, everyone sorts and separates waste for composting.

When asked about the lunch program, faculty, students and staff say that they enjoy the food. Teacher Emily Heiden says that LaFountain’s bruschetta is “out of this world.” Sixth grader Leah Litman, who stopped eating the school lunch under the old program, now buys lunch every day. She likes the fresh salad and several of the main dishes. And head of school Dan Finkel says that his own kids (in kindergarten and third grade) went from not interested in lunch under the old program to “Can I have it every day?”

But it’s Joe and Sara for whom they reserve the highest praise. Heiden appreciates the “personal touches that they add to things…and that they seem really dedicated to cooking… Joey brings deep joy to his kitchen and thus to the school.” Litman says that Joe and Sara are “really nice when giving you the food… They ask, How was your day?” And Finkel notes that “Joe’s happiness is infectious—kids get happy talking to him going through the line.”

Tomato soup, grilled cheese, tacos, chicken and rice—the menu items are not unusual. Even fresh fruit and salad can be found at many, if not most, school cafeterias. The secret of this program (if one can call such an obvious thing a secret) is not in the sauce, it’s in the smile.

Top photo: Students enjoy the new lunch program at Gesher Jewish Day School (Photo by Jennifer Scher).