Culinary Compassion: MPowering Special Needs Students Through Food

By: Eugene Hendon, Midway ISD Assistant Director of Child Nutrition

In the busy halls of Midway High School, a beacon of inspiration shines bright—not in the classroom, but in the school cafeteria. 

Student cafteria worker smiles wearing apron.
Avery Kirts was recognized for his contributions to Midway High School Nutrition as the first student to participate in the MPower Food Service Training Program.

Veronica Phifer, a dedicated member of the high school cafeteria staff, is making a profound impact by helping special needs students unveil their hidden talents. At the core of Veronica’s compassion is her son, Dae‘Quan Portis, who was diagnosed with ADHD and MID as a baby. He is part of MPower, a special needs program provided by Midway ISD. MPower offers specialized support and resources for students like him, aiding in their educational success. Veronica’s genuine passion for serving others, combined with her emotional connection to special needs children, aligned perfectly to help spearhead a new initiative that unites MPower and the Child Nutrition Program.

Veronica wasn't the only driving force behind this new initiative. Midway High School Child Nutrition Assistant Manager David Wyrick believes in empowering students with special needs through practical education. Through the leadership of their manager, Jennifer Wiggins, they have turned an idea into a reality that is transforming the lives of students in the program and the entire school community.

From their idea, the MPower Food Service Training Program was designed to give these exceptional students a chance to learn essential life skills, foster independence, and build self-confidence. Not only does the program provide students with a supportive and safe environment to develop culinary skills, but it also allows them to interact with their peers, forming strong bonds of friendship.

Student cafteria worker smiles wearing apron with other employees.
From left: MHS Child Nutrition Assistant Manager David Wyrick, Learning Coach Lisa Cesmat, cafeteria staff member Veronica Phifer, MPower student Avery Kirts, and MHS Child Nutrition Manager Jennifer Wiggins.

Avery Kirts is the first student to participate in the MPower Food Service Training Program. He was diagnosed with a rare condition called Fragile X Syndrome at an early age but has defied the odds. Each school day, Avery eagerly dedicates two hours of his time to immersing himself in the bustling atmosphere of the cafeteria. Guided by Veronica, David, and the high school nutrition team, he gains practical knowledge about food safety and production through hands-on experience. 

When asked what his favorite part of the program was, Avery said “I’m learning, oh yeah!”

Veronica, who works hand-in-hand with students in the program, is not just teaching culinary skills; she’s fostering life skills. Students learn the art of food preparation, understand the importance of safety protocols, and cultivate valuable customer service skills. These skills not only “MPower” them in the cafeteria, but also equip them with independence and self-confidence for the world they will face beyond school.

Veronica also oversees the entire lunch process for the MPower students as she prepares, packages, and delivers meals to students at the on-campus MPower facility daily. Having served over one million meals in her 15 years at Midway ISD, her love and relentless dedication to her son and other special needs students is a source of inspiration to the entire Midway community.

The dedicated team of individuals who help facilitate the MPower Food Service Training Program is a testament to the idea that every single student, regardless of their abilities, deserves an opportunity to shine and reach their full potential. Avery’s presence in the cafeteria reminds us that with love, patience, and unwavering support, we can unlock the extraordinary potential within every student.

Dec 21, 2023