How do school food service workers run an operation as slick as a well-greased baking pan, while dealing with kids’ unpredictable tastes? They’ve all got to have a sense of humor, a love for children and the ability to improvise — and that’s just the beginning.
Rose Springs Elementary
Michele Beck, Rose Springs Elementary’s lunch room manager, lifted the cover to a new lunch item called Mexican chicken. She stirred the chunks of tomatoes and chicken in the greenish-brown sauce, and scrunched her nose.
“The kids aren’t going to like it,” she predicted.
So Jody Monosso, who was over that day’s main dish, made sure there was plenty of chicken noodle soup — 15 gallons in all — which was the other entrée.
“It’s like a guessing game for us,” said Beck. “’What [of two entrees] are [the kids] going to take?”
For instance, she could plan on 100 tuna sandwiches with 350 cheese melts one day, but pair tuna sandwiches with something popular, like chips, and the ratio could be completely different.
Welcome to a typical day of school lunch.
Even before lunch there’s about 100 servings of breakfast to get ready. At 6:30 a.m., when most people are still in bed snoring, Beck is already at the Stansbury Park school starting up the steamers and warmers, and turning on the gas and lights. Breakfast fare is a rotation of French toast sticks, waffles, churros and cinnamon rolls.
That means that every other Thursday, when the food service workers make cinnamon rolls, they mix 4 pounds of oil, 22 and a half pounds each of wheat and white flour, and 4 pounds of sugar in a huge mixing bowl. Then they bake pan after pan of rolls, which makes for a lot of dirty dishes.
That’s where Renee Burns comes in. She’s Rose Springs’ designated dishwasher. Lest you feel sorry for her, imagining her with piles and piles of pans and soap bubbles up to her armpits, she does have a dishwashing machine that shoots steam out like a dragon. And thank goodness for the disposable plates and utensils the students use.
For stocking the salad bar that has lettuce, carrots, celery and new veggie jicama (pronounced hee-ca-ma), Jodi Jensen, the “veggie person,” is the one to thank. She has many stories to share, like the time she unintentionally made hockey pucks.
“I hadn’t been working here more than a year,” said Jensen. “I was making ham and cheese melts. I didn’t realize I had to bag them before putting them in the warmer. They turned out like little hockey pucks. I was ready to cry and told Michele, ‘I’ll go to the store to get more hamburger buns.’”
Fortunately, the kitchen had extra buns on hand, averting disaster.
“Now I’ll never forget to put them into bags,” said Jensen.
When the food service workers make a mess, it’s custodian Randy King to the rescue.
The first time Monosso made cake in a gigantic metal appliance they call “bear,” it overflowed as it baked.
“(Cake batter) got stuck in the fan,” recalled Monosso. “Randy had to chip cake from the fan [blades].”
There was also that time Charline Gallo, “the bread lady,” accidentally spilled Jell-O.
“There were Jell-O jigglers in trays,” Gallo said. “One of the gals kept bumping them. I decided I would move it. The jigglers slid off and covered the whole rack.”
At 11:25 a.m., the first wave of students checked in at the computer, where kids tend to treat the lunch lady on duty like a confidante.
“My parents don’t have money,” a student who was out of lunch money once said. “My mom needs to go tanning.”
“God bless them,” said Jensen. “They don’t know what they should or should not say. When they say things like that, I put my fingers in my ears and say ‘La, la, la.’”
Once the line got going, the food service workers served Mexican chicken with trepidation. Some students, like Shelby Longhurst and Brady Grgich of Miss Karma’s first grade class, bravely took a bite of the new offering.
The verdict? A smiling Longhurst said, “Mmm,” while Grgich said, “I love it.”
“It’s one of those pants-on-fire kind of days,” Ann Peterson, Excelsior Academy’s kitchen manager, said Thursday.
When the food service workers cut open the watermelons at prep time, two of them were bad, but it was no problem. The staff at the Erda charter school’s Lion’s Den Café just had to improvise. They substituted orange slices for the watermelon, and the Excelsior scholars (the term the school uses to refer to its students) were none the wiser.
Other interesting moments from the lunch room’s past include the time the food truck didn’t come.
“It was snowed in,” said Anna Loertscher, Café office manager. “We did a hodge podge of whatever we could pull from the freezer.”
Then there was the time it was pitch black in the kitchen from a power outage.
“We were sitting out [in the dining room] dishing up cups of salad,” Loertscher recalled.
However, for the most part, everything runs like clockwork, thanks to a staff of seven food service workers. It has to in order to accommodate nearly 400 scholars from first through eighth grade — including kindergartners on Wednesdays. The kids sit at approximately 30 tables over three lunch shifts in a room half the size of a traditional school lunch room. At one time, half of the junior high scholars sat on the right side of the room with first graders in the middle and third graders on the left side, creating a sort of organized chaos.
Excelsior does not serve breakfast, although occasionally, it serves breakfast items like French toast for lunch. The lunch menu on Thursday gave scholars two choices: bean and cheese burritos or beef nachos. The nachos by far had the longer line.
First graders had clothespins with their name and lunch number clipped on their uniform lapels. Carmen Neafsey greeted them at the computer with a smile while between shifts, dining room attendant Jennifer Clark wiped the tables down.
For their vegetable, scholars could choose carrot coins and celery sticks. Other times, the lunch has included “star-of-the-week” jicama as well as raw asparagus dipped in an MSG-free ranch dressing made from scratch. Raw asparagus?
“Yes,” Loertscher said, smiling. “That’s the only way I’ll eat it. We go around with samples, and some of the kids try it. There’s a couple that won’t.”
One of the lunch room’s surprising hits this month was a green smoothie (see sidebar) made with unsweetened fruit and fresh spinach, which Loertscher adapted from greensmoothiegirl.com.
A majority of Café recipes come from staff’s personal collections and the USDA website. To help the kitchen staff determine how many lunches to prepare, the teachers do lunch counts during attendance. Still, the food service workers always do an over-count because sometimes, scholars with home lunches sniff the air and say, “I changed my mind. I don’t want the tuna sandwich I brought.”
When that happens, the food service workers oblige with a smile.
-End of story, sidebars follow-
Top lunch favorites at Rose Springs Elementary:
Popcorn chicken bowl
Excelsior Green Smoothie
2 cups frozen unsweetened fruit
2 cups water
4 cups fresh spinach
Blend and serve. Makes six cups.
Courtesy of Excelsior Academy lunch staff