While many Boston residents spent the pandemic working safely from home, Cleo Cotton headed out the door around 6 each morning to assume her post as an essential worker. In the kitchen of Frederick Pilot Middle School, a Boston Public Schools (BPS) meal super site, Cotton and five colleagues worked together to cook fresh breakfasts and lunches, package and freeze the meals, and bag them into three-day packs to be distributed to families of students learning remotely. All told, they prepared 400-500 free meals per day for kids in Grove Hall and beyond who relied on the district’s food access.

“That’s my love. I love feeding people,” Cotton said. “People are happy we’re there. A lot of them have to choose between eating and paying a bill. If we’re not doing this, Lord knows what would happen.”

Just a year and a half ago, Cotton was in need of help herself. After she had worked many years in retail to support her five children, a series of strokes forced her to quit. She hoped maybe she could get back into the workforce by starting a catering business.

Cleo Cotton in her element.

Cotton certainly had the passion for it. As a child, she had learned to cook from her grandmother, who made dinners for the family every Sunday night. By 9 years old, Cotton had become her grandmother’s sous chef, picking and cutting greens, helping with the homemade biscuits and cornbread. As an adult, Cotton kept the tradition alive, hosting family dinners for her siblings and cooking for friends and loved ones at funerals, weddings, barbecues. But to make it in the culinary world, she would need technical skills to elevate her talent to a professional level.

So in Fall 2019, Cotton signed up for the Community Servings Teaching Kitchen. In the 12-week training program, she learned different cutting techniques, efficiency methods for cooking in volume, and the language of a professional kitchen. Even the interpersonal lessons made an impression.

“I was a little hothead,” she said, laughing. “But they taught me how to work in an environment with other people, how to be compassionate, how to be patient.”

As part of her training, Cotton also passed the ServSafe Manager exam – a food safety test administered by the National Restaurant Association – and thanks to that credential, in February 2020, she landed a position with BPS as a cook at UP Academy Holland, an elementary school in Dorchester. The job paid north of $15 an hour, more than she used to make in retail. At first, Cotton was nervous, wondering if her body would hold up to the demands of the job. But she surprised herself with how easily she transitioned into a busy kitchen.

“A lot of it was stress that was making me have the strokes,” she said. “Once I completed Community Servings, though, my spirits were high. Once I had a positive spirit, it just stayed that way.”

The Holland staff didn’t need to train Cotton. She even taught her colleagues a few tricks, like how to speed up potato prep. The strong first impression she made would prove crucial. Just one month later, when COVID-19 hit, Cotton and the other kitchen workers were sent home with pay for what everyone thought would be a week or two. As the pandemic dragged on, neither she nor BPS knew how long that arrangement could last. But by the following month, Cotton received a call: BPS wanted to know if she would work at one of the meal super sites. Only a few cooks from each school were extended the invitation.

Now, nearly a year after she answered the call to help feed families in need, Cotton has been promoted to kitchen manager of Mason Elementary School in Roxbury, where she manages a staff of three. In her downtime, she’s working on writing a cookbook and adding videos to her YouTube channel, Cleo’s Kitchen. She’s even thinking of starting her own line of spices.

“Not so long ago, I would have never thought I’d be going to Community Servings, or that I’d end up here at BPS,” she said. “When you’re passionate about something, give it a chance. Don’t ignore it. You never know where it can take you.”

Cotton’s training was funded by the Neighborhood Jobs Trust. Learn more about the Trust.

A smorgasbord of Cotton’s dishes.
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