Although she’s relatively new to a career related to cooking and school nutrition, Ashley Pigford’s work as Hilltop Montessori’s Community Kitchen Manager has been innovative and well-received. Ashley, 35, grew up in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and graduated from Mississippi College with a business degree. She has lived in Birmingham for the last eight years. She and her husband, Josh, have three daughters. She loves trying new recipes, reading and cross-stitching.

What experiences, goals or skills led you to your current position as Hilltop Montessori’s Community Kitchen Manager?

I think growing up on a farm and always having a garden gave me a solid understanding of where my food came from. I always loved when we could point out the different foods on our dinner plate and connect them to different family experiences in the garden or fresh milk from the dairy farm. I love working with children and getting them excited about new foods. Our new Farm to Fork lunch program is focused on fresh, from scratch, local foods that not only meet the requests from our parents but make our students happy. We serve around 80 kids a day and are always trying new recipes. Some of the big hits are our kale and apple salad, homemade vegetable soups and of course pizza day with our freshly made sauce.

What else makes the Richard Grandey Teaching Kitchen at Hilltop different from a traditional school lunchroom?

We have the coolest open concept kitchen that is perfect for students to come in and get their hands dirty. In this first year of our kitchen we are focusing on establishing our hot lunch program. We can’t wait for more opportunities for our classrooms to be involved in the kitchen through cooking classes that can pull in all types of curriculum, from working with fractions to learning the science behind how plants grow and how they nourish our body.

In a typical school day, how many students visit the kitchen, and what do they do?

For now we have all of our 1st-8th graders come down to the kitchen for hot lunch on a daily basis. We have had the pleasure of having our Upper Elementary class in for the cooking of their annual gingerbread scene. The Middle School class successfully cooked 300 pancakes and sausages for their Mardi Gras Pancake Breakfast.

How does the community benefit from Hilltop’s kitchen?

We love our relationship with Mt Laurel and I happen to be one of its residents so I love that we get to share our new facility with our community. In the future I would love to see cooking and garden classes that benefit both our students and our community.

Child nutrition is a hot-button topic in school systems across the country. What is your approach to meal planning and preparation at Hilltop, and how do you strike a balance between what’s healthy and what tastes good to students?

As a mom of three, my first thought is, “Would I be happy serving this to my kids and would they like it?” It’s difficult to hit that sweet spot and pretty impossible to please everyone, but we try our best. Every day we have two main entrees, one vegetarian and one with meat. We have found that most of our kids like having those options. It keeps costs down and gives kids opportunities to try new things that they may never have tried before, like Lentil Tacos, Quinoa Patty Burgers or Black Bean Empanadas.