Fourth-Grade Time for Kids Student Journalist Winner Grills Nutrition Director On Pandemic Meals
Maria Perrone, FCPS director of food and nutrition services, adjusts her black thick-rimmed glasses and readies herself for the next question in a Friday afternoon Zoom interview with an aspiring Time magazine journalist.
The reporter spins slightly in his high-backed business chair, drums his fingers on his chin, and thanks Perrone for making time on a summer Friday to speak with him. He is peppering Perrone with questions as he sits in front a Zoom background featuring an image of the Earth from space, somewhat giving the impression he is broadcasting from the Moon.
Ethan Zhang, age 9 and a fourth-grader at Churchill Road Elementary in McLean, apologizes to Perrone for typing during their back-and-forth. Ethan, then a finalist in Time Magazine for Kids student journalist competition, has chosen to profile Perrone as part of the competition’s final round, which directs students to find a local hero to interview and profile.
“Throughout the covid pandemic, she has helped a lot of families in need by providing more than 10 million meals to kids in our county,” Ethan says. “So I thought her work and her leadership was very newsworthy and deserved to be written by someone.”
Ethan, one of 20 student journalist finalists across the U.S. when he interviewed Perrone, wound up being selected by Time for Kids as one of 10 winners across the country whose work would be published on the magazine’s website. His story about Perrone is now available online at the Time For Kids site.
Ethan says his love for journalism started last year, when, amid the pandemic, he launched a website that is viewable only by his family and friends.
“I wrote about the real world: politics, covid, sports sometimes,” Ethan said, noting at first he primarily used the Internet as his main source for articles. “For example when Covid started I wrote about the number of cases there were, what Covid was and the first online college football draft.”
Ethan hits Perrone with serious questions about the toughest element of her job running food services for the largest Virginia school system, especially when the pandemic forced schools to close in-person learning for months on end.
“The biggest challenge was every day you had to adjust and change something in operations, and you went in knowing every day was not going to go as planned,” Perrone tells Ethan. “Sometimes there were staff who weren’t able to report to work that you thought would be there, sometimes there were challenges with the food industry being short on items we needed for planned menus. We spent a lot of time problem solving and trying to be prepared for anything that would potentially not go as planned.”
Perrone says she’s most proud of the work of her team, how they were able to perform in the most challenging time in the 15 years she has worked for FCPS Food and Nutrition Services. Her division delivered food to more than 400 bus stops at one point, as well as 120 other locations, she said.
“The meals were the one constant in FCPS when we had to shut down,” Perrone said, noting they served more than 14.5 million total free breakfasts, lunches, snacks and dinners to children since March 2020. “These are such difficult times so many unknowns and the staff never disappointed.”
Ethan wants to know what time Perrone wakes up in the morning and what a typical day is like for her: she tells him her work day starts at 5am, since some central production facilities open before 5:30am to prepare food for the day.
“Wow, so you wake up at 5am, go to work at 5:30 and then spend a lot of time doing important stuff,” Ethan comments. Then he pivots to a question that is maybe on many kids’ minds as FCPS students return to five-days-a-week of in-person learning this year.
“What is your favorite item on the school cafeteria menu?” Ethan asks. Perrone gives her endorsement to salads, making use of all the “fresh fruits and vegetables” she knows are available across the district every day or the banana bread and milk for breakfast.
“I enjoy the yummy cheese nachos too,” she concedes.