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AHA improves the health and well-being of Wake County residents by facilitating and supporting community initiatives.

Perspectives: Ode to the School Lunch Ladies (Sept. 2014)

Timber Drive Elementary lunch ladies Letitia, Brenda, Maria, Sara Merz and Manager Kim Wood

From left, Timber Drive Elementary Child Nutrition Services staff (aka lunch ladies) Letitia, Brenda, Maria, AHA Director Sara Merz and Kim

I recently visited the school kitchen at Timber Drive Elementary in Garner to learn more about how the school lunch system works in the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS). An incredible crew of women and the head of training for WCPSS Child Nutrition Services (CNS) graciously hosted me.

I want to be clear and state a few facts right up front.

  • North Carolina is one of a few states that provides no state funding toward school lunch, which means the federal funding is what puts lunch on the table, along with revenue from sales.
  • That money pays rent to the schools in Wake County ($3 million/yr), buys the food, and pays staff salaries.
  • WCPSS feeds over 66,000 children lunch every day, and 22,000 breakfasts too.

That’s a lot to do every day with great limitations.

I was so appreciative of the school lunch ladies, and I am in awe of their skills and knowledge, hard work and compassion! They were wonderful. I think they do an amazing job, and I admire and appreciate them. And I recognize they are working within a system that places a lot of constraints on what is possible.

I think this TED Talk video is right on: Why Lunch Ladies Are Heroes.

Yes, I would like to see more systems level changes. But the thing about big systems is they are connected to many other things that hold those pieces in place. WCPSS CNS operates in a context of the Federal funding model and standards, which even limit the size of fresh whole fruit that can be served. For example, if a fruit is too small and it isn’t a whole serving, that jeopardizes reimbursement for the entire meal; if it’s too big and it’s more than one serving, there are cost implications. The current model at WCPSS is heat and serve, and changing that would be a lot of steps, and time, and would increase costs.

Federal regulations, funding levels, and the lack of state funding may have a greater impact on what is served for lunch than anything we can do here in Wake County. The district does have a USDA grant that supports fresh food and vegetable preparation at one school, paying for the extra staff time (one person’s job), and the additional fresh food. And that is one site out of 165.

Sara Merz helping out the  Timber Dr. Elementary Child Nutrition Services staff on a recent visit.

Sara Merz helping out the Timber Dr. Elementary Child Nutrition Services staff on a recent visit.

WCPSS Child Nutrition Services has gotten national recognition for their work in meeting the new federal standards, which include reduced fat and sodium. They were ahead of the curve in working with suppliers to meet the new standards. Chicken nuggets, chili, and all the other prepared foods CNS orders to heat and serve, are being made differently to be healthier. I’ve seen some great things at schools where the food is prepared in a central kitchen for the district, but that was in a state that contributed to the school districts’ nutrition budget.

I think it is amazing that 66,000 children are fed lunch every day in WCPSS schools. To increase the amount of fresh food kids are served, it will take more staff time for preparation, more money for fresh food, and different equipment – all those translate to a bigger budget. WCPSS doesn’t have taxing authority, so they aren’t the ones to make an annual infusion of cash to make this happen.

Honoring the Lunch Ladies

Since I don’t have the purse strings, today, I do want to honor the people who feed our children, meeting the federal guidelines handed to them. They do an amazing job and show such caring and compassion for the kids.

I will share just a few highlights of my day with the lunch ladies at Timber Drive. I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and breakfast started at 8:45. A staff of four prepared, served and rang the kids up. Just before the last crowd of kids came in, the water quit working. This meant food could not be prepared or served, because staff couldn’t wash their hands. And that meant the kitchen would have to close.

The water came back on just long enough for the last group of patient children to eat their breakfast, but quit again, and lunch preparation had to stop while we waited to see if the water would be restored.

The kitchen manager calculated how much water would be needed for hand and dish washing, and the principals rushed to the store and bought 35 gallons of water so the school day, and lunch, could go on.

The kitchen was behind, with a couple hundred children getting ready to start their lunch hours, so I offered to help. I brought out more peas, corn, peaches, sandwiches, mozzarella sticks, and juice as the kids emptied the line, helping Maria, who was much faster than me. She was so kind, and helped me as I ineptly tried to switch out the steel pans. One woman at the register, Shelly, had kind words and enthusiastic warmth for child after child.

I really liked these women, and I’d serve lunch with them any day! They teased me that I secretly wanted to be a school lunch lady, and it’s true. We all want to feed the kids.

Yes, I’d like to see more fresh food, and a shift in the prepared food – but that isn’t in the purview of the lunch ladies. When we talk about school lunch, I’d like to see us support the people doing the work.

I’ve learned a lot in the last few months, and I’m still learning. And if we want changes, it’s the Federal funding and nutrition guidelines, and state funding, to work toward. This is beyond the purview of AHA, which works in Wake County.

So back to that video if you didn’t click it: Why Lunch Ladies Are Heroes. Thank you, lunch ladies, for feeding and loving the kids.

–Written by AHA Director Sara Merz

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