(Photo by Patricia Petty) [Order this photo]
"In my day, we had to walk uphill to school. Both ways! And the cafeteria ladies fed you leftover slop in a trough, and you liked it!"
Well, times have changed. It's too dangerous for kids to walk to school, and that's not the way they do things at the Learning Way Elementary cafeteria. The ladies there are dedicated to serving tasty, healthy and nutritious meals to their students.
(Photo by Patricia Petty)
Cafeteria Manager Julie Compton and her ladies run a pretty tight ship. I visited them last Tuesday to learn how a typical day plays out for them, and to see how they map out the logistics of feeding more than 600 meals per day.
The day starts early with a fast pace.
They arrive at 6:30 a.m. and have the first meal out by 7:05 a.m. On Tuesday, 267 students were fed a hearty breakfast of sausage, egg and cheese biscuits, Honey Nut Cheerios and a Pop-Tart.
That number should rise, according to Compton, since the Bedford County Board of Education began a universal free breakfast program that started this week.
After the last student is fed, it's cleanup time. Then the ladies, each with their own responsibility, begin work on lunch. This deadline is 10:26 a.m. -- period.
"It doesn't matter if we're short a person or if a delivery is late, we've got to have lunch ready when that first class of students gets here," explained Compton.
There's a unique blend of individual responsibility and teamwork that goes on amongst the ladies.
First, there's cleanup from breakfast to be taken care of. I did my part by cleaning tables, baking trays and taking out trash. There's no break time.
"If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean," Compton told me.
(Photo by Patricia Petty)
After cleaning, there's the preparation of the sack lunches, hot trays and salads -- which there are four types to choose from: fruit, southwest, diced ham or grilled chicken. For Tuesday's hot tray, we prepared pizza dippers with marinara sauce, kernel corn and veggies with dip.
"Make it pretty, because the kids eat with their eyes," said my veggie cup prep buddy, Misty Troupe.
Luckily, I joined the ladies on what they called an "easy day," because we were able to complete the meals and eat lunch around 10:15 a.m., before the children took over the cafeteria. Otherwise, our tummies would have been grumbling until 1:30 p.m.
To make more than 600 meals in three hours is no easy task for only 11 workers. To make them healthy is even harder.
"We have to plan to feed at least two servings of fruits or vegetables per day, include milk, and serve only so much meat and bread," Compton explained. "And the snacks that we sell have to be baked or reduced fat. For a lot of our kids, this is the most well-rounded meal that they'll get."
Did I mention that a lot of the foods that are served are made from scratch?
Joann Ashby makes some mean Rice Krispies treats and brownies. Sherry Robinson made me a tasty baked potato with all the fixings for lunch. And main dish cook Connie Neely is known to whip up some good spaghetti, tacos, and turkey and dressing.
(T-G Photo by Mitchell Petty)
There was a sense of familiarity that was comforting. If a child has an allergy, the servers know about it and make sure that the student is taken care of.
"We all take pride in our jobs," said Compton. "I'm proud of my ladies, and I hope that they know that. I've had people take tours of the kitchen and say that this is the cleanest school cafeteria that they've ever seen."
Catering for more than 600 hungry mouths per day is not an easy job, and I'm honored that Julie, Patsy, Brenda, Michaela, Doris, Sherry, Joann, Carrie, Misty, Nancy and Connie all shared their kitchen with me.
-- Mitchell is a features writer for the T-G. He is ready and willing to get "on the clock" with you for a day and tell readers about what you do. You're welcome to pitch your ideas to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.