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    Unsung food service hero in Salem receives award

    Deborah Jeffers, nutrition director for Salem Public Schools, received the 2018 Root Community Leadership Award.
    Elisabeth Massey for Root
    Deborah Jeffers, nutrition director for Salem Public Schools, received the 2018 Root Community Leadership Award.

    A food service hero in the Salem Public Schools was recently honored by a local nonprofit for leading the way for the city’s youth — by both feeding them and helping them get jobs in the food industry.

    Deborah Jeffers, the city’s school nutrition director, was presented the Community Leadership award by Root, a nonprofit that helps break down barriers to success in the food service industry for the North Shore’s young people.

    “Deb has been a friend and a champion of Root since the beginning,” said Scott Knox, executive director of Root. “She’s been championing our young people and advancing the organization since day one.”

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    Root trains 16- to 24-year-olds in Essex County to work in kitchens and restaurants. The Salem-based nonprofit focuses on young people with life and educational barriers to success.

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    The program spans 200 hours over 12 weeks, preparing young people for not just kitchen training, but also applying and interviewing for jobs.

    Future chefs train at the Root Cafe in Shetland Park on the city’s waterfront, learning how to prepare and serve food for the cafe, as well as catering and event settings. They also train at area restaurants, such as Ledger Restaurant & Bar, Gulu-Gulu Cafe, and others.

    The Community Leadership award is presented to someone who “exemplifies the true spirit of youth leadership and workforce development,” Knox said.

    “I’m shocked,” Jeffers said. “I am not a person to toot my own horn. I just like to be in the background and get things done.”

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    Jeffers has given Root her time, her advice, and her resources since the beginning. She said it’s just part of the important work to be done.

    “I really appreciate what they’re doing with the youth,” Jeffers said of Root. “They’re doing an amazing job with the kids, and we need someone like them to be doing this.”

    Jeffers became involved with Root about five years ago when founder Jennifer Eddy was looking to form the nonprofit. Jeffers provided advice on programming, equipment, and inventory, and has since served on the organization’s advisory board.

    Before she was the city’s nutrition director, Jeffers was a dishwasher and a “lunch lady.” In 2008, the school district was considering privatizing its school foods, which would have meant far more packaged and processed items on the menu, she said.

    Instead, Jeffers and others developed a cost-effective food program that would be even healthier than what the schools served before. Jeffers said the school system cooks as much as possible from scratch, such as pasta and muffins, and buys local produce.

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    The school kitchen staff previously spent their time simply unboxing and serving processed foods. So, she brought in a chef from the nonprofit Project Bread, and retrained the staff on preparing fresh, healthy food for the city’s students.

    ‘They’re doing an amazing job with the kids, and we need someone like them to be doing this.’

    “We had to change the whole mind-set of the staff,” Jeffers said. “It was hard work, but it was meaningful and important.”

    Salem Public Schools grows some of its own produce, too. For example, Jeffers purchases baby greens grown on site by high school students to use on the menu.

    In step with the mission of Root, Jeffers has also welcomed student interns to learn and help out around the kitchen. Jahmela Dyce, a junior at Salem High School, recently wrapped up her internship in the school kitchen. She learned about health and nutrition by helping make the whole wheat muffins.

    “I learned a lot about how much stress the lunch ladies have to make a lot of food for the students,” Dyce said.

    Eddy said that Jeffers is health-and-nutrition-oriented, concerned about young people, and ready to put in the work. Simply put, Jeffers and Root are on the same page.

    “Food is a common thing that brings us all together as a community,” Eddy said. “Her focus on feeding nutritious food to everyone in the community is parallel to Root’s: It’s to feed our community, and our souls, and help youth find job opportunities.”

    Morgan Hughes can be reached at morgan.hughes@globe.com.