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Day in the Life: Willis Lunch Ladies

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Willis-ISD-Cafeteria-LadiesThe “lunch ladies” of Meador Elementary are never idle. In preparation for today’s breakfast and lunch, menus were created weeks ago; ingredients were ordered, delivered, and catalogued days ago. Much of the actual preparation of today’s meals was done yesterday. When the first students arrive at the cafeteria for lunch at 10:55 a.m., it is a well-orchestrated event.

Meador Elementary, the largest elementary school in Willis Independent School District, offers free breakfast to all 784 students in their classrooms each morning and serves more than 500 lunches per day. (District-wide, about 67 percent of students eat lunches prepared at school cafeterias.) Six full-time employees pull off this amazing feat daily, operating like a well-oiled machine.

6:00 a.m. – Six full-time “lunch ladies” arrive while it is still dark outside and begin assembling fruit trays for today’s lunch. The fruit was washed yesterday, so today’s job is easier. Several of the women report that fruit trays (which include fresh fruit, yogurt, cheese, and graham cracker sticks) are a popular lunch choice.

7:00 – The women organize breakfast by classroom, putting items in insulated containers. Warm entrées go in some of the containers, while cold milk and juice go in others. All elementary school students in Willis ISD are offered free breakfast, says Deborah Humphreys, child nutrition director. “If they have a good breakfast, they are ready to learn the rest of the day,” she says.

Willis-ISD-Cafeteria-(5)7:25 – The women begin delivering breakfast containers to the classrooms. We tag along with Frances Rankin, who is in her 19th year as a school cafeteria employee in Willis. Frances is “amazing,” says kindergarten teacher Christina Evans. “We are truly blessed to have her. She’s on top of everything.” For example, Frances and other cafeteria workers keep tabs on students who have food allergies. If students are allergic to items on the menu, they are offered alternate items.

7:30 – Frances and four other workers complete their rounds. Each has delivered breakfast to about eight classrooms.

Willis-cafeteria-(2)7:35 – Although today’s lunch is still hours away, workers begin preparing tomorrow’s lunch. One woman washes potatoes, which will be baked and served with cheese, sour cream, and margarine as one of tomorrow’s choices. There are two—sometimes three—entrée choices every day, Deborah says. Baked potatoes are popular, says Tracey Pope, manager of the Meador Elementary cafeteria, as are breaded-and-baked chicken “smackers.”

7:40 – The six cafeteria workers move from one job to the next with seemingly endless energy. Meanwhile, Deborah explains the challenges of meeting the new federal guidelines outlined in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Lunches must contain a meat or other source of protein, a vegetable, fruit, bread, and milk. Breads must be at least 51 percent whole grain, vegetables and fruits must be in a variety of specific colors, and milk must be offered in fat-free and one percent milkfat varieties. Lunches must also meet guidelines for sodium and fat content. The child nutrition staff strives to serve foods that appeal to students, while still meeting these guidelines. For example, when cafeteria workers noted that most children threw away their steamed spinach, they began serving fresh spinach as a component of chef salads, which students like surprisingly well.

7:50 – With tomorrow’s lunch preparation still in progress, Debbie Dutton, supervisor of child nutrition, explains that the child nutrition program in Willis ISD is economically self-sustaining.

8:00 – Having been on the job for two hours, the cafeteria workers now take a well-deserved break for breakfast. Meanwhile, Debbie, who is now in her 28th year as a school nutrition employee, tells how the job has changed during her career. “We used to serve French fries, homemade rolls, and chicken-fried steak,” she says. Fryers in school cafeterias are gone, and guidelines are now so strict, it’s hard for cafeteria workers to make entrées and breads from scratch. While it’s challenging to find products that meet federal nutritional guidelines, taste good, and allow the cafeteria to stay within its budget, the cafeterias do it each day.

Willis-cafeteria-(3)8:15 – Workers get organized for tomorrow’s breakfast, placing a specified number of banana muffins on large trays. “To feed as many kids as we feed, and do as much as we do in a day,” Debbie says, “you have to have some kind of a system.”

8:25 – School starts. When students are served breakfast, their teachers mark their names on scannable rosters. Teachers also tally the number of students who plan to buy lunch in the cafeteria, and then record their intended choices. (They might change their minds at lunchtime, but this headcount will tell cafeteria workers roughly how much to prepare.) Teachers also collect money to be placed on student lunch accounts.

8:30 –Frances returns to the eight classrooms where she previously delivered breakfast. Here, with the quick fingers that come from years of experience, Frances handles several important tasks. As she picks up the insulated containers outside classrooms, she tallies containers of uneaten strudel, juice, and milk. She also compiles projected lunch counts and notes the amounts that will be credited to student accounts. It looks like a dizzying task, but Frances doesn’t complain.

Meanwhile, Frances mentions that she drove a school bus for 10 years before becoming a cafeteria worker. Although she is eligible to retire, she has no immediate retirement plans. “Seeing the kids’ smiling faces” is her favorite part of the job. “When you see them in the store or when you’re out and about, you’d think they were kin to you,” she says.

9:00 – The nonstop work in the cafeteria continues. While workers clean up from breakfast, Tracey is busy at the computer. “You wouldn’t believe how much paperwork they have to do,” Debbie says. For example, the temperature of refrigerators, freezers, and prepared food must be recorded; food must be ordered. Production reports must be generated, kept on file, and saved for future audits. The Texas Department of Agriculture audits cafeterias once every three years, Deborah says, and seemingly minute details are addressed. For example, workers serve trays with ½ cup measuring scoops so that they will get the mandated number of servings from each giant can of vegetables.

9:15 – The sheer volume of work being accomplished is staggering. “It’s a challenge,” says Deborah, “but they’ve got it down.” She notes that many of the workers attend continuing education classes in pursuit of certifications. “All the training really pays off,” she says.

9:30 – One cafeteria worker mops the floor; meanwhile, Tracey looks at teachers’ scannable rosters and reports that 615 children took advantage of today’s free breakfast. She also double-checks the amounts to be credited on student accounts, a precaution that can prevent confusion later.

Willis-ISD-Cafeteria-(6)9:40 – Workers pack fruit in bags for tomorrow’s breakfast. Others assemble containers of cheese, sour cream, and margarine, which will be bagged in preparation for the baked potatoes at tomorrow’s lunch.

9:45 – Although the day’s milk delivery is usually earlier, it’s just now arriving. Tracey makes sure the right number of cases—38 cases of 50 cartons each, including white, strawberry and chocolate—are delivered. She arranges the newest cartons at the back of the refrigerator so that milk with earlier expiration dates is used first. She also checks expiration dates on cartons to make sure all the milk in the refrigerator is fresh. No other deliveries are scheduled today, but Tracey says she follows a similar check-in procedure twice a week when other food items are delivered.

10:00 – A half-day worker arrives to augment the staff during lunch. Other workers complete a variety of tasks while enjoying the proverbial “calm before the storm.”

10:10 – Tracey learns a student was just approved for free lunches. She rushes to get him included in the system so he can eat lunch today at no cost to his family. Debbie notes that no one is aware which students are receiving free lunches and who is paying regular price.

Willis-cafeteria-(1)10:20 – The beef for today’s barbecue sandwiches is put in steamers, and the aroma fills the cafeteria. Today’s menu choices—barbecue beef sandwiches, fruit plates, and chef salads—are all easily prepared, Tracey says; however, tomorrow’s menu, which includes individual pepperoni pizzas with whole grain crusts,  will mean extra work for Tracey, who will oversee the “batch baking” of several hundred pizzas.

10:30 – Cafeteria workers begin folding out 12 rows of collapsible tables.

10:55 – The first two classes of students—kindergarteners—arrive. Students with lunches brought from home sit down, while others go through two lunch lines. The wisdom of pre-paid accounts is now evident—children go through the line quickly without the hassle of paying cash. “Our cashiers get eight to nine kids through every minute,” Debbie boasts.

Willis-ISD-Cafeteria-(3)11:00 – Two more classes arrive, and will continue to arrive every five minutes. This staggered approach means short lunch lines. Hands go up throughout the cafeteria, and an aide helps children open stubborn containers. A child drops an entire fruit tray; a worker notes that apples and oranges were still bagged, but provides replacement grapes.

11:25 – The two classes that arrived first now leave. Frances quickly sanitizes the tables they vacated in preparation for the next two classes. (Workers rotate duties, with two cashiers, two servers, one table wiper, and one floater.) Meanwhile, James Henderson, who is in his 18th year on the janitorial staff at Willis ISD, sweeps underneath the recently-vacated tables.

Willis-ISD-Cafeteria-(2)12:25 – The last of the students have eaten lunch and left the cafeteria. For the remainder of the afternoon, the cafeteria workers will sanitize and fold tables, put away leftovers, and continue preparing tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch.

2:00 – A busy workday is complete. Six full-time workers and one part-time helper have made breakfast and lunch available to nearly 800 students. The “lunch ladies” have met their goal once again!

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