Mike Ioli, Senior Director of Food Services, KIPP NYC
Adventure and risk-taking in the name of doing what’s best for kids is in Mike Ioli’s DNA. Before joining KIPP, he was an outdoor adventure guide. A few years later, he was simultaneously KIPP NYC College Prep High School’s AP Spanish teacher, one of the school’s Deans, the varsity Wrestling coach, and leading a nascent culinary program for students. Last year, he oversaw KIPP NYC’s food pantry, which distributed nearly 75,000 meals per month to members of our schools’ communities during the height of the pandemic. Today, he is expanding his vision for healthy eating by leading the KIPP NYC Culinary Team, opening kitchens in our new school buildings and serving thousands of students fresh food that’s made from scratch every day. Let’s hear from Mike about his inspiration:
“I got fed up with what kids were eating [at the high school]. Coming from an Italian background, learning to cook from my grandmother, food was always super important to me. In high school and college I worked in restaurants busing and waiting tables; I was a line cook. I got to our high school and we got this big commercial kitchen that was largely unused, so I started the Culinary Club to tap into my passion for food and cooking. We had 200 kids sign up [for Culinary Club]. We created a Catering Club, cooking for sports banquets, senior awards nights. The kids were so proud. One of the kids said, ‘why don’t you cook food like this every day?’. Not long after, I attended culinary school at night to get ready to launch the program.”
Despite the massive shift in how Mike and his team procured ingredients, when high school staff saw how the students were responding to the fresh, scratch-made food, there was no going back:
“We were sourcing our own food. On Sundays I was driving to a farm in Connecticut for fresh produce. We had a farmer who was driving beef down from his ranch upstate. We have not moved away from fresh. We know where it’s coming from. Everything comes in overnight or early in the morning and we whip it up that next morning or day.
The kids could tell we were doing it ourselves. The whole point was that kids should feel good about what they’re putting in their bodies. Kids were actually eating lunch. Kids would give us feedback and recommendations for dishes; we would do samples and ask kids to test out the recipes.”
To address food insecurity due to the pandemic, KIPP NYC operated a food pantry for 17 months in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem and Washington Heights to support students and their families. Mike and his Culinary Team served 950,000 meals through the pantry during that time.
“We were doing grab and go meals for kids [at our high school in the Bronx]. We were a pick up site for materials and food. The [KIPP NYC] External Affairs team got us in touch with the Food Bank for New York City. Five Guys, Chop’t were closing down some of their restaurants. We started getting donations. The door started opening. That morphed into boxes with weekly pantry goods. We then expanded to Washington Heights, Harlem, and a second Bronx site. We didn’t have to lay anybody off; the kitchen staff became the pantry crew. We had staff, SST, parent volunteers. The next thing you know we’re doing 75,000 meals per month.”
At the start of this school year, Mike and his team transitioned their resources from the pantry to replicating the success of the high school kitchen in the KIPP NYC buildings that have kitchens with the resources to produce fresh, scratch-made cooking:
“We are fully operational at Gerard [501 Gerard Avenue in the Bronx – the home of KIPP All Middle, KIPP Affirm Middle, KIPP Elements Primary, and KIPP Inquire Elementary Schools]. We gutted the Jerome [2246 Jerome Avenue in the Bronx – home of KIPP Freedom Elementary School] kitchen over the summer. We put in a new floor, a hood, and new equipment. We now have a production kitchen there to cook from scratch. We are 25 total people across the high school, Gerard, and Jerome.”
Despite the many forms of adversity and challenges that Mike has faced over the years, at the end of the day his purpose is unchanged:
“My mission is every single KIPP NYC student will be eating our food. We want to get to everybody. I want to do a teaching kitchen. We could create culinary arts classes. If we had kids who could be getting a specialized diploma for trades; there’s a lot to be explored there. There are amazing opportunities to push more options and choices for our kids through non-traditional, post-secondary routes and we could be supporting that.”