Lunch Ladies: The All-American School Cafeteria Heist [1]

The school lunch ladies were treated like they were invisible. Then two of them and their beloved boss were accused of a bizarre heist. And another lunch lady blew the whistle.

This is part one of a three-part feature story I’m serializing exclusively in Disruptor.

It seemed like just another picture-perfect morning at East Elementary School, a most desirable public middle school in a most auspicious of towns, New Canaan, Connecticut. Autumn leaves fluttered down on the Porsche Cayennes and Mercedes SUVs, as the moms and dads and nannies bid their children goodbye.

A bedroom community of Manhattan, the town of multimillion-dollar colonials and Architectural Digest farmhouses is among the richest in the nation. Residents have included TV anchor Brian Williams, Paul Simon, General Electric chief executive officer Jack Welch, and actress Katherine Heigl, who grew up there and has called it home to “the world’s most pretentious people.”

I met with First Selectman Kevin Moynihan in October 2019 inside his wood-paneled office overlooking the cafes and Pilates studios on Main Street. He told me one of the primary draws is the first-class education system. “The parents have the pressure to raise kids that are all successful,” he said, “So they want to invest in good schools.”

This is why it seemed all the more unusual on October 18, 2013 when Antonia “Toni” Torcasio, a 58-year-old, Italian-American clad in an apron, red shirt, and black pants – the uniform of the school’s cafeteria workers – burst out of East Elementary in tears.

Her sister-in-law, Gisella Libertino, who also worked as a lunch lady there, happened to be outside. When she asked what was wrong, Torcasio said, “They destroy me!” in her thick Italian accent. “They destroy me!” she repeated, heading desperately toward her car.

With a shaky hand and racing heart, she sat behind the wheel and dialed her daughter, Rosa, a human resources officer in nearby Norwalk, Connecticut. “I can’t breathe,” Torcasio told her. As her daughter tried to find out what had happened, Torcasio declared, “It was Bruce and Marie!” And then she passed out cold.

Torcasio was referring to Bruce Gluck, the beloved 51-year-old director of food and nutrition services for New Canaan Public Schools at the time, and his faithful 60-year-old assistant director, Marie Wilson. (Gluck, a classically-trained and award-winning chef, was beloved in town for transforming the county’s cafeterias into a national model of health and nutrition.)

When I met with her in October 2019 at a diner near her home in Norwalk, Torcasio still got emotional when recalling the story. She wore a black shirt, tan pants, and a silver cross. Her faced flushed as she spoke of the abusive system of sexism and intimidation that lurked behind the scenes of the New Canaan Public Schools’ food and nutrition service for decades.

She says it culminated with her desperate escape from the lunchroom that fall day in 2013.

After suing the school district, the town, and Gluck for the hostile environment and gender discrimination in federal court, she became New Canaan’s unlikeliest whistleblower. Her case epitomized how underserved the women who serve the nation’s children can be. (After a prior unsuccessful suit, the second was settled out of court on undisclosed terms in 2017 and Gluck left the school district at the end of the term.)

But that wasn’t all there was to it. For years, she had suspected that Gluck and the sisters were acting out to hide an even more nefarious scheme: she believed they were skimming hundreds of thousands of dollars from the very kids they fed.

In August 2018, Wilson and Pascarelli were arrested and charged with larceny and defrauding a public community for allegedly stealing $478,588 from Saxe Middle School and New Canaan High School between 2012 and 2017. The sisters pled not guilty and are awaiting trial, which has been delayed due to COVID-19. The following April, Gluck — who had moved to Vermont — was arrested and charged with first-degree larceny, defrauding a public community, conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny, and tampering with physical evidence. He pled not guilty as well, and faces trial.

For Torcasio, it feels like vindication for her and every lunch lady who has ever felt dismissed. “The reason I stood up,” she told me, “is because I collapsed.”

The story of these lunch ladies is a story of immigration.

In 1968, at 13, Torcasio emigrated from Calabria, Italy, to live with extended family in an Italian part of Norwalk. Like the other immigrants, she had come (as she told me in broken English and a thick Italian accent) “to have a better living.” Though she didn’t speak English and her family didn’t believe in sending her to school — leaving her with just a sixth-grade education — she found her way in the years to come: marrying a man from the same town in Calabria, Frank, a landscaper; having two children; and starting her own small daycare business.  

“In my hometown in Italy, girls always had to stay home,” she said, and couldn’t work for themselves. “Here was more free,” she said.

But that freedom became more curtailed after Frank became sick with diabetes and COPD. Needing a full-time job with health insurance, she took a position as a cafeteria worker for the New Canaan Public Schools for $22,000 a year. She was assigned to South Elementary, one of five schools in the system.

Though Torcasio had never worked in a commercial kitchen before, she had a passion for cooking — especially pizzas. Even better, the school felt like a slice of the old country, filled with other Italian immigrants, including Wilson and Pascarelli.  

Driving over to the school from her home in Norwalk felt like entering a forbidden world: the exotic cars, the giant houses, the stately lawns — some of which her husband had mowed. “It’s a money town,” she said, “They don’t deal with us, with the low-class thing.”

But the class divide met in the lunchroom, where Torcasio and the other immigrants had the sacred and trusted duty of feeding New Canaanites’ darlings.

It was a responsibility no one relished more than Gluck, who’d been with the school since 1994. (Facing trial now, Gluck did not respond to interview requests).

A paunchy Bronx native with a bushy, graying beard, Gluck seemed to be exactly the kind of food guru the town desired: a trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America who was transforming his cafeterias into pioneering models of healthy eating. It hadn’t been an easy transition when Gluck had from macarons to mac-and-cheese. He criticized Wilson for ordering too many chicken nuggets, only to find that she was right when she said it’s better to stock up because the food company runs out. “He needed to learn how school operated,” Wilson later said in a deposition, “It was very antiquated. It was a very difficult time for him.”

Gluck had grown dismayed over so many students loading up on chips and sweets in the cafeterias and chucking the nutritional food in the trash. He made the then controversial move of cutting back the junk food from the menu entirely. “It turns my stomach to sell anything I wouldn’t give my own children,” he told The New Canaan-Darien + Rowayton magazine in 2006. When parents called the school to complain, he stood firm he told the magazine. “'Look, we’re not saying you can’t send snacks to school with your children,’” he said he explained, “'but you need to be the one who makes that choice.’”

As Gluck designed a heathy menu with ingredients sourced from local farms, it was up to Torcasio and the other lunch ladies to fulfill his wishes. She and the two other lunch ladies on her team had their work cut out for them — they arrived at 8 a.m., and had to prepare lunch from scratch for 300 students. “I never cooked for so many people,” Torcasio told me.

Instead of serving the usual industrial chicken fingers and rubbery burgers, she perfected Gluck’s balsamic chicken wraps and flourless black bean avocado brownies. She told me she introduced — with Gluck’s approval — healthy recipes of her own: lentil soup, butternut squash soup, and (what became her signature dish) cauliflower crust pizza. Gluck teased Torcasio, she said, for trying to “show off” her cooking skills, but gave her the ultimate compliment by adding her pizza to the high school menu. “He loved her cooking,” Wilson testified.

So did the others. Students affectionately nicknamed her “Mrs. T.” Parents and teachers clamored for her cauliflower pizza. Though the students came from elite backgrounds (like the one who told her about his trip on Air Force One), they treated her like their own grandma. “The kids were very good to us,” she said. [Office1] She looked out for the less privileged ones, buying a 75-cent cookie herself for a girl who couldn’t afford the treat.

Gluck, too, considered Torcasio not only a good cook, but a hard worker. “I always liked her,” he later testified. Ten months after hiring her, he promoted her to lunchroom manager at another school in the district, East Elementary.  

On February 9, 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched “Let’s Move!”, a campaign to fight childhood obesity, including improving food quality at the nation’s schools. At the end of that year, President Obama signed the Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law, creating national standards for school nutrition.

While the rest of the country was catching up with the program, New Canaan’s school lunchrooms were pushing even further ahead. After years of ingratiating himself within the town, Gluck had forged a kind of artisanal culinary institute of his own, generating enough from cafeteria sales (which boasted an 85 percent student participation rate) to turn away federal funds. "I think more than government mandates, success involves the community and we have great involvement here in New Canaan,” he told the New Canaan Advertiser in January 2011. “The people here want what is best for the town and what is best for their children."

This meant his cafeterias did not have to abide by or have his creativity limited by the government’s relatively bland, mandated menus. He eliminated processed food entirely, and was serving rotating menus including vegetarian sushi and farm-raised duck. For the parents who grew up on school lunches of cold lasagna and gelatinous pudding, it felt like having their own Bobby Flay.

“He has been instrumental in all of this,” Cobie Graber, co-founder of the school’s Wellness Program told the New Canaan Advertiser in 2011. Gluck and his staff began catering around town, he received a $10,000 grant to further study nutrition, and he became a celebrity spokesperson for a local pizzeria (“As the Director of Food Services, I, most heartily, encourage everyone to try Primo Crust’s products!”).

Worst was “the Day of the Ducks.” Gluck insisted on putting a most complex meal on the lunch menu: steamed duck.

But for Torcasio and the cafeteria workers beneath him, Gluck’s meteoric rise was coming at a price. Though a charmer to the PTA, he was a “raging bull” behind-the scenes, lunch worker Paul Mele later testified. Transforming the lunchrooms into his farm-to-table fantasy was trying work: lugging 50-pound bags of potatoes, cooking vats of chili, keeping track of hundreds of cash transactions.

Worst of all was what Torcasio called “the Day of the Ducks.” This came after Gluck insisted on putting a most complex meal on the lunch menu: steamed duck. Torcasio told me how watched his face redden and eyes bulge when he saw the ducks face down in pans. The ducks had to first be hung by their necks to keep the blood in the carcasses, he told her, then later put in pans and steamed.

Another time, he declared that to celebrate “Dr. Seuss Day,” on the author’s birthday, the women had to whip up green eggs and ham on the fly – not with food coloring, but the natural dye of steamed spinach, which took hours. “He wanted perfection from people who were not perfect,” she recalled, “he was the chef, not us.”

Gluck would call on Wilson several times a day, to express anger when someone changed the menu or didn’t his follow recipe, or how they poorly spiced the egg salad, or why saved the day’s cold cuts rather than tossing them. “Did you see what was on the deli?!” he barked one time, then hurled the meat on the floor.

Another time, unsatisfied with the chicken salad, he flung a spoonful at lunch lady, Anna Granata. “He said, ‘this chicken taste like shit,’” Granata testified, “and threw the spoon right toward me.” She became so frightened when he confronted her for taking home a slice of pizza that was otherwise being thrown out, that she urinated in her pants.  “I used to cry in the shower,” she went on, “I used to cry in the car.”

When the lunch ladies balked at any of this, they had to endure Gluck’s rants about the “bitches,” “morons,” and “shmucks” he had to deal with every day from the Board of Education, the students, the teachers, the staff. They were told not to raise issues with the principal and, least of all, the moms. “If a mother comes in here, don’t complain,” Torcasio said Wilson told her, “just talk with her about whatever she wants to talk about.”

Torcasio quickly found out what would happen if she went over Gluck’s head. When two of her coworkers complained about him to their union boss — Pascarelli — it would go straight back to Wilson, her sister. “If a person who say anything,” Torcasio recalled, “she will straight to Marie and she will report it.”

When that happened, the person complaining would be sent to the lunch lady equivalent of Siberia: dish duty at the high school. Cafeteria worker Aurea Lopez claimed in Torcasio’s federal lawsuit that this happened to her after injuring her neck in a car accident. She filed a statement with the court saying that she’d given Gluck a doctor’s note specifying that she needed light duty until she recovered. Instead, she found herself assigned to dish duty in the high school as what she calls “a punishment.” As another lunch lady testified, “You can’t speak out about anything or you will be put on dishes.”

But for all Gluck’s rage, the few men — representing about 10 percent of the staff — who worked in the kitchens seemed immune. “He would yell more at the females,” Mele recalled, “he used his power.” Granata insisted “he treat all the women very bad.”

Gluck had himself been growing beleaguered over his deteriorating relationship with the lunch ladies. He testified about one lunchroom manager he had to fire for “supernatural issues.” She called him “evil” for being a Jew, he said, and suggested he needed to get anointed. “I was frightened,” he said.

“They have not worked outside the home,” Gluck said, “And so I think that working for a man is intimidating to many of them.”

But he also knew that Torcasio feared him. He had seen her burst into tears at least 10 times just at the sight of him. “I was the trigger,” he said. Finally, when he asked her why she was upset by him, she replied, “you just scare me.”

For the lunch ladies, the kitchen had long been a safe space, both at work and home, a place they could commiserate and unwind. They liked the freedom, the comradery – sometimes a bit too much, like when one lunch lady jumped up on a sink to demonstrate her pole dancing skills, which Gluck reprimanded her for doing.

Gluck and the sisters insist they had a standard to maintain. Pascarelli would defend him in her testimony as simply “passionate” about his job. The stakes, they said, were high. “If we're not careful, we can make kids sick,” she testified.

Gluck thought the reason Torcasio and the lunch ladies felt so scared of him was not only because he was the boss, but because he was a man. “They have not worked outside the home,” he said, “And so I think that working for a man is intimidating to many of them.”

Pascarelli agreed, “It was a hard adjustment to get used to a male boss for everyone, they were used to a woman there.”

Wilson thought the problem was that the women were simply not as smart as him. “Bruce is an intelligent man,” she testified, “and sometimes he doesn't realize who he's talking to when it comes to being clear or getting on their level and talking to them in a way that they understand.”

 “So,” the attorney asked, “you are a lower level than Mr. Gluck?”

“I would say that.”

Lunch Ladies is a three-part feature story I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter. To read the next part, as well as others feature stories and posts from Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future, please subscribe below. Thanks!

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