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Lessons learned during a school lunch
school lunches 1
Bryan County Elementary School lunchroom staff members, front, left to right, Aleisha Padgett, Daphne Herndon, manager Mistie Strickland, Marie Swain, and, in back, Anna Caiati and Addie Hines. Photo by Jeff Whitten.

Never downplay the importance of lunchroom ladies.

That’s because if, as Napoleon said, an Army marches on its stomach, then so does your local school system.

“Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry,” said Carole Knight, head of school nutrition for Bryan County Schools.

She’s the person ultimately responsible for some 60 employees at 10 schools who plan, cook and serve breakfast and lunch to about 70 percent of the district’s 9,625 students.

It adds up to approximately 6,000 meals a day, or around 1 million a school year.

“And they do that (the 6,000 meals per day) within a 2-1/2 hour period,” Knight said, all while routinely earning 100s on the county’s twice-yearly health inspections.

Sometimes, those breakfasts and lunches can be the best meals of a students day.

Roughly a third of the district’s students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, which Knight said puts Bryan County Schools sixth lowest in the state for program participation.

By contrast, counties such as Evans have more than 98 percent of their students on the free and reduced lunch program, which has enabled them to do away with charging for meals altogether.

That option isn’t available in Bryan, Knight said.

“It can be a thing that’s hard for parents to understand. They’re doing it in that county, why aren’t we doing it in this county? It’s because of the complexity of the program.”

Still, in Bryan County, which operates its school lunch program on an annual budget of about $4 million, no family on free or reduced lunch is charged reduced lunch fees.

The county is reimbursed $3.30 per meal for free lunches and 30 cents per meal for reduced lunches, so officials decided some time ago to absorb that 30 cents.

In the meantime, students who don’t meet the requirements for free and reduced lunches under federal guidelines pay $2.75 per lunch and $1.75 per breakfast.

That income, coupled with reimbursement from the government and the sale of healthy snacks, pays the bills - funding everything from employee pay and benefits (it can cost about $900 a month an employee for health insurance) to food purchases.

In return, Knight said all students get healthy meals that meet federal guidelines for such things as calories - lunches should average out to be 850 calories a day - and occasionally include subterfuge to keep youngsters from realizing they’re eating something that’s good for them, such as omitting words like “low fat,” from menus.

“We still have to serve something they’ll like, otherwise they won’t pick it up,” said Knight, a registered dietitian.

“When I first came to work we were required to put a pat of butter on every tray,” she said. “It was the best butter you ever tasted, too. At that time there were no calorie limits, and we didn’t have as many fast food restaurants.”

For generations, there also was little option for students who didn’t bring their own lunch.

“When I was in school we didn’t have any choices. They put everything on a tray and you ate it or you didn’t,” Knight said. “Now, if a child doesn’t want pickles, they don’t have to pick up pickles. Why put it on a tray if they’re just going to throw it away?”

Fast food changed the world

The entrée during a recent lunch at Bryan County Elementary School in Pembroke was none other than the famous Prime Time chicken sandwich.

That sandwich, Knight noted, is “students’ absolute favorite,” even when it goes by another name, “Clux Deluxe.”

There are two reasons. One is that, as a reporter can attest, it tastes good but also because it’s served in a sealed bag, as if it came from Chick-fil-A.

“If I put this on the plate without the little bag,” Knight said, “They wouldn’t like it as much, and that’s because when you go to Chick-fil-A you get the sandwich in a little bag like this one. So much of making food kids will eat is presentation.”

The sandwiches, which cost the school system $1.25 each, didn’t arrive at BCES already in bags, waiting to be zapped in microwaves and then thrown on a tray. They were prepared in ovens by lunchroom manager Mistie Strickland and her staff, then put on buns and placed into the bags, then served to kids along with waffle potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, assorted fruits, a tasty and healthy Ranger cookie and a choice of milk.

The lettuce, tomato and pickle were served in a small paper tray, so that students could take or leave.

As for condiments, the rule seems to be don’t try to sneak off brand ketchup past students.

“We usually serve either Heinz or Hunts ketchup,” Knight said. “If we put in an off brand, students will take the packet and mash it up on the floor. Children are very brand conscious, and the older they get the more brand conscious they are."

Just like in the old days, students go through a line, where they go from server to server with options of taking one or sometimes more of whatever’s available on a particular tray.

Menus, which have to follow federal guidelines, are basically the same across the district, differing depending on whether it’s an elementary, middle or high school.

“If someone doesn’t like grapes, for example, we will have strawberries or oranges,” Knight said. “And we do offer a lot more items now we think they will like. If a child comes through and wants two servings of green beans, for example, they’re going to get two servings of green beans.”

For Strickland, a Bryan County native who graduated from Bryan County High School and now has two children in the school system, the most important thing is “making sure my babies get fed.”

That means preparing on average between 420 to 430 meals a day for lunch and another 210 to 214 for breakfast, all while on a shift that runs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

As manager, Strickland gets in earlier. Her day starts around 6:30 a.m., with breakfast beginning at 7:30 a.m. and lunch at 10:30 a.m.

Her biggest challenge is making sure she doesn’t run out of food and makes deadlines. But the toughest job is portion control, she said.

“You want them to have enough,” Strickland said, adding that she’s also ever aware that the kids “will never wait on you. You always have to have everything ready to go on time.”

It can be stressful. Though there are six employees in each kitchen, Strickland on one occasion had to make do with half that number when members of her staff were out sick.

“I’ve ran the kitchen with only three, and we got every mouth fed on time,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how many we have out, we’ll make sure the kids are fed.”

The job of lunchroom lady - they’re still called that - is about more than just cooking and serving food, Knight said.

“They put out a lot of food and clean it up in a short amount of time. It’s cooking, serving, cleaning, the manager has to order the groceries (which are delivered twice weekly), and know what she has on hand and what she’s going to use, and what she’s going to need based on that.”

There are rewards beyond a paycheck and benefits.

“Seeing them happy makes us feel good,” Strickland said, recalling a certain banana treat that prompted one student to come and thank her.

“She said ‘it was so good it tasted like fireworks going off in my mouth,’” Strickland said. “Things like that make you feel really good.”

What students said

Students Gerbravion Collins, 11, Darius Edwards, 10, Madelyn Shurling 10, and Abigail Lee, 10, generally gave the meal high marks, though Collins wasn’t a fan of tacos and apparently believed the breakfast pizza could use some work, and Edwards seemed to be able to do without chicken pot pie. They did like the service, and the lunchroom ladies, and the Clux Deluxe’s.

Abigail Lee, who listed ice cream as her favorite, said everything was perfect.

The biggest complaint on that particular day was the background music - each school decides whether its students are to be serenaded at meals in an effort to keep them focused on eating.

Students at BCES called it “funeral music.”

Afterward, students take the lead in cleaning up, whether it’s emptying trash, sweeping floors or wiping tables. It’s considered an honor to be chosen to help clean up, and students can choose what jobs they want to do.

“It’s just fun to me,” fourth grader Bailey Slosher said as she worked a broom around tables.

Knight praised her staff across the system and believes the school’s 70 percent student participation rate is “extremely good,” and those who eat in the lunchroom are well fed.

“It’s almost kind of like hospital food,” she said. “You don’t expect it to be that good, but it really is. And even at McDonald’s you’re not going to get an entrée plus fruit and milk and vegetables for what it costs for a school lunch. I think we do a pretty doggone good job.”

See: RELATED VIDEO -- Bryan County resident holds yard sale to pay for students' lunches

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