By Trish Turner
Most of us can think back to our school years and recall a teacher that made a difference in our lives. For me it was Mrs. Edna Nichols, fondly nicknamed "Mama Nichols" by her students. She was my eleventh grade English teacher at King High School in Tampa, Florida. She was also my twelfth grade Creative Writing teacher, and sponsor of Orb, the school's literary magazine where I was on the staff. I was encouraged by "Mama Nichols" to keep writing and to enjoy life. I hope all of you had someone who encouraged you like that.
I also remember the support staff that made my school days more bearable. These included the office staff, custodians, bus drivers, and lunch ladies. At my high school in Tampa we were in double session. The juniors and seniors had classes in the mornings and sophomores had classes in the afternoons. Everyone seemed to congregate in the lunchroom before or after their classes. My favorite lunch there was an authentic Cuban sandwich, that had a palm frond baked into the hoagie style bread. I always complimented the ladies on those delicious sandwiches, and they brightened my day with their smiles.
It was not until I became a lunch lady myself that I learned to truly appreciate all that lunch ladies do. When I lived in Manassas, Virginia in the 1980's I worked as a cafeteria worker at a middle school. Immediately I could sense the camaraderie that the ladies had with each other. We worked hard preparing the food, serving the students, and then cleaning up. I was impressed that everyone swept and mopped the kitchen area at the end of the day. No one left for home until that was done, and no one shirked their duty.
Then we moved to Columbia, Maryland. In Columbia I decided to do substitute cafeteria work until something permanent came up. When you are a sub you have to be available on a moments' notice, so I often got a call at 6:00 in the morning to sub for someone who had called in sick.
Later we moved back to Florida and I did not get back into working in school cafeterias until 2004 when we moved to Ogden, Utah. I worked for the Weber School District at Bonneville High School for eleven years. The lunch ladies there did a lot more than any other school I had worked in. Every day we made rolls, main dishes, desserts, and other items from scratch. Even the mashed potatoes were made from real potatoes. Each lunch lady had to be able to lift at least a 50 pound bag of flour or sugar by themselves, and when putting up supplies in the storeroom we often had to lift cases that weighed about 40 pounds. It was a lot of hard work, and we sometimes were worn out; but we served our students with a smile.
It was not all work and no play as a lunch lady at Bonneville. We did things to make our students smile, such as decorating our hair nets on Halloween, and wearing Santa hats at Christmastime. The students knew that we cared about them. I treasure a note that one young lady gave to me just before she graduated. "I will miss you!! Seriously, you were always one of the best parts of my day. I really appreciated everything you did for me, even if it was just giving me a smile. And that day you noticed I was wearing contacts and not glasses, that was so sweet of you. You also noticed when I got a haircut a few times. I'm sure not many people say it, but you're one of the people working at Bonneville who makes it what it is. And I'm sure your smile brightens at least a few people's days. :)"
When we moved to Meade County in 2016 I retired, but I missed working with children, so I went back to work as a cafeteria sub. I have worked in most all of the schools here in Meade County, and I can say that you have some of the best lunch ladies in the country! Everyone I have worked with shows a genuine love for the students, and they work hard together to keep the cafeterias running smoothly. All the workers in the kitchens join together to get the breakfasts and lunches out to the students on time, unitedly clean the kitchens at the day's end, and put away food orders that come in. Above all, I have seen the love these ladies have for the children that they serve. I believe that everyone has seen how the lunch ladies have gone above and beyond during the COVID-19 shutdown. Each day the ladies put lunches together so that families can come by and pick them up for their children.
I almost forgot to mention the training that lunch ladies go through. Before they set foot in a lunchroom all permanent and substitute lunch ladies have to attend a training session to learn how to keep the food safe to eat for the children, and to maintain the kitchen in a clean and sanitary manner. They also complete classes on topics such as bullying—which there is a zero tolerance for in all schools—and positive behavioral supports. Most of the training in Meade County is done by the Food Services staff at the School District office. The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is a national organization and they offer classes on line and at annual state and national conferences. All lunch ladies are eligible to be members of SNA, take online classes, and attend these conferences. When I was in Utah I was able to attend the state conferences every year and I learned a lot, plus I had fun socializing.
I call lunch ladies unsung heroes because they are more important to your children than you realize. Here in Meade County every child gets a free breakfast and lunch. If a child came to school hungry and was not given the opportunity to get breakfast and lunch they would not be able to perform well academically. Studies have proven that if a child eats breakfast it improves their attendance and behavior, and increases attentiveness. Above all, lunch ladies have a unique opportunity that teachers and administrators often don't have. They can smile and give encouragement to the students who may be having a rough day at school in an atmosphere where they feel comfortable. A lunchroom is still the most social area of a school, just as it was in my school days.