Behind the counter with the lunch ladies

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Seafoam green and beige trays filled with grilled cheese, raisins, carrots and pickles line the steel serving counter. The students file behind their teachers waiting for the go-ahead to pick up their food and head to the gymnasium, which moments before was filled with running students and bouncing basketballs.

The assembly line inside the St. Vincent de Paul Parish School kitchen flows smoothly as the parent helpers find their positions amid the full-time kitchen staff.

Place grilled cheese on tray ... slide ... a handful of carrots ... slide...

The students are unaware of the efficiency of those behind the counter as they quickly pass through the line.

They are, however, thrown off by the silverware situation.

"It's finger food. No silverware," Karen Orta, food service staff, repeatedly informs the students. "It's fun day."

By the time the students are sitting down to eat their lunch, the day for the ladies of the cafeteria is almost over. Food service manager Sherryl Moore and her staff of two arrive at 7:30 a.m. to prepare the food, and are done cleaning a half-hour after the last student passes through their lunch line.

Grilled cheese sandwiches make for a relatively easy day. All of the sandwiches are laid out on a tall rolling rack an hour before the students arrive, waiting to be placed in the ovens several trays at a time. It is during this moment of calm that the ladies take a moment for themselves to sit down and nibble on a grilled cheese lunch of their own. The volunteer parents arrive five minutes before the first group of students. At 10:50 a.m. exactly, the rush begins.

Since the students arrive in waves throughout an hourlong period, timing is key. The sandwiches can't be cold by the time the students take the first bite, nor can they hold up the line as the trays wait for their missing piece of the meal.

At the Scott City school district, chicken patty day is the hardest to serve because there is a lot of preparation work and it is time-consuming to put all of the food on the trays. Not to mention that it is by far the most popular meal. While the cafeteria typically serves 700 of the 1,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students, chicken patties increase those numbers by another hundred.

Make way for the Jell-O Man

"If you work in a school, you need to have fun," said Brenda Arnzen, director of nutritional service for Scott City. She said she enjoys switching up things for special occasions.

Bringing variety into St. Vincent's lunch menu, however, is not always welcomed. The children were leery of the noodles on their trays for Chinese Day, but familiar shapes like chicken fingers and grilled cheese sandwiches are always a hit.

Although St. Vincent does not hold special holiday meals, there is a lunch each month that children look forward to -- the day Jell-O Man comes to school. Kevin McMeel is a parent volunteer who has helped serve lunch for the past eight years, and during that time he acquired the name and was deemed the one person who would hand out Jell-O to the students.

"I don't know how or when it happened," Moore said. "We only have Jell-O when he is here and the children love it. They get so excited." Jell-O is on the menu for Thursday at the school.

Incorporating new foods into the menu is also difficult because it upsets the schedule. When Moore plans the lunch menu each month, she must take into account government guidelines. Each meal cannot consist of more than 10 percent fat and the week's worth cannot accumulate more than 30 percent. Moore said the menu must model a balanced diet, not only to fight current obesity, but to set the example for future eating habits.

To aid in meeting these requirements, Scott City uses a computerized nutritional analysis that determines the portion sizes for each grade level. The middle and high school receive the same portion sizes, but the elementary must receive smaller portions.

The two cafeterias and the 13 kitchen staff operate smoothly under the direction of OPAA Food Management, a company serving Missouri schools since 1978. The company relieves Arnzen of the daily financial food management hassles. OPAA receives discounts with food companies because it contracts with 47 of the 74 managed public school districts in Missouri. This means there is money left over for equipment maintenance and Arnzen can spend her time focusing on inside operations.

All of OPAA schools cook their food from scratch, except for the chicken as a necessary safety precaution. But what they are best known for is their three-choice meal options. Students are not restricted to the main entree of the day. If they don't like sloppy joes, there are still two other options, like ham and cheese sandwiches or even a chef salad with fresh fruit.

But the options do not end there. There is a second food counter called A La Carte where students can buy things like popcorn chicken, pizza, and french fries. On average, 200 students pass through this line.

Lunch is not only the meal Scott City cafeteria employees are concerned about. Arnzen understands serving breakfast is a necessity because for many students it may be the only way they get the most important meal of the day.

"It's sad to think it might be true," she said.

On average, 200 students sit down in the cafeteria to a typically hot breakfast like biscuits and sausage gravy, which has become a tradition on Fridays.

But preparing for two meals means an extra early start for the baker, Bonnie Counts. Her day begins at 5:30 a.m. with the first batch of rolls or biscuits and it does not end till after 12:30, when the last table is washed down. Counts' inspiration comes from a picture hanging on the kitchen wall. It shows the previous baker who passed away. They worked side by side, but Counts says to be a great baker is something which must come naturally.

"I like to cook and bake at home. I think you have to have it in you," she said.

For Arnzen, her inspirations are the children. In her office a bulletin board is filled with student pictures. Even her computer desktop is picked out by two of the seniors who frequently stop by to chat.

"We like to be personal with them," Arnzen said. She added that she knows all of the children by name and even the new staff try to do the same.

At St. Vincent, the familiarity between the students and food servers is a natural occurrence because the school is smaller. As some of the students return their trays to be cleaned, they are sure to tell Moore and the staff what they didn't eat. Not quite as a guilty confession, rather they simply feel the urge to inform the ladies what they like and what they don't.

Scott City seventh-grade student Shawn Lee is a verbal track-record for the cafeteria's finest food.

"The tacos are the best," he boasts, but then continues to list off other food which he claims to be equally as good.

cpierce@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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