A day in Lunch Lady Land It’s not the world you probably remember.

There seems to be a litany of “whatever happened to ...?” professions in America, rapidly disappearing each year. Milkmen, elevator operators, gas station attendants — they’re all falling off the map.

In the Central Kitsap School District, though, at least one of those professions has been preserved: the school lunch lady.

It’s a profession that’s been around for generations and made such an impression on American culture that Adam Sandler and Chris Farley saw fit to immortalize it in song in a mid-90’s “Saturday Night Live” skit.

Although lunch ladies and the school food service industry has survived more or less in tact, neither have been immune to sweeping changes. Technology, rising health standards and food trends have morphed the business into something much different than what many people may remember.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at Ridgetop Junior High, where Head Cook Pam Clark and her staff do their best to keep their kids happy and healthy.

“Let me tell you — the food service has changed a lot since you were in school,” Clark says as she leads the way into her kitchen.

5:00 a.m. — The sun hasn’t even come up yet and Clark and Ethel Farrell, food service nutritionist two, have already been at work for a half hour. It’s a somewhat nocturnal schedule that the pair keeps, but that’s what the job calls for.

It’s in fact early enough in the day that Clark and Farrell are the first school employees to show up, meaning they have to unlock doors and disarm alarms before getting to work.

Once all that is done, food starts going into ovens.

Breakfast food is pretty ubiquitous — breakfast sandwiches, fresh fruit, etc. — but it’s a calculated process to serve it.

One of the biggest changes over the years, Clark says, has been the increasing scrutiny lunch staffs face in the kinds of food they serve. Clark refers to three big binders to figure out portion sizes, calories per meal and per ingredient and a host of other numbers.

“You want this so somebody can walk into your kitchen and say, ‘Oh, this is how I do this,’” Clark said.

Picking up the Food Buying Guide, which tracks serving sizes and sets the standard for how much of each value — calories, fats, etc. — is allowed in each serving of food, Clark plays up its importance.

“This is your bible in food service,” she says.

Kitchens face periodic audits from the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), as per orders from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). If a staff falls short of standards, it could mean fines or worse.

“It’s a little more intricate than people think,” Clark says of the food preparation process.

5:55 a.m. — A Food Service of America worker shows up for a twice-weekly drop-off of groceries. It takes a lot of food to feed an entire junior high and never is that more evident than on this particular day.

Lunchtime will see the return of “nacho day” in just a few hours, and as Clark says, “they love their nachos.”

In order to fill everyone up, Clark and her staff are preparing 36 pounds of refried beans, 45 pounds of taco meat, more than 60 pounds of nacho cheese sauce and 84 pounds of tortilla chips.

Mind you, this is a rarity for Ridgetop students. Nachos aren’t exactly the healthiest food on earth, but about once a month, Clark relents and gives the kids a treat.

6:45 a.m. — Students are hanging out in the cafeteria, waiting for breakfast to begin and the food is just about done, marking the start of Clark’s favorite part of her day.

“The best part is the kids,” Clark says of her job. “I have a real connection with the special ed kids. They’re just really good kids.”

Clark makes small talk with everyone who makes their way through the line after the big metal doors that mask the kitchen go up and kids start attacking food.

The nachos later in the day are a treat, and Clark hypes them up to kids as they pass by, but most times, she and her crew are trying to get kids to make healthy choices.

“If we can get them to make good choices here, maybe they’ll do it elsewhere,” she says.

Some kids are almost required to eat well. Students on reduced meal programs are required to pick one of three items — breads, meats, fruits and vegetables and juice or milk — to qualify for reduced lunch programs.

If they don’t, food service staffers can be “dinged,” as Clark says, by a OSPI/USDA audit. Hence the need for the binders and record keeping.

7:00 a.m. — Encouraging good food choices only goes so far though; some students just don’t have the money to afford a lunch everyday. For those select few, Clark has gone out on a limb and “hired” them as kitchen help.

“You can tell the ones that are having a hard time,” she says. “You can see them. And I’d rather feed them.”

Some take out trash, some break down cardboard and they all walk away with a decent meal.

7:15 a.m. — Clark and Farrell even have fans. Zachery De La Cruz and Connor Worthington, a couple sophomores at Central Kitsap High School, were regulars in the kitchen when they attended Ridgetop and they’re not shy to stop off before school and have a meal.

“These are like the nicest people I’ve ever met,” De La Cruz said.

“I like hanging out with the lunch ladies and having breakfast,” Worthington adds.

That’s fine with Clark.

“They were good workers,” she said.

7:30 a.m. — Once the school bell has rung and students have packed themselves into class, there’s a little downtime and then the preparation for lunch begins. First lunch doesn’t start until 10:20, but three hours leeway is just about right for the volumes of students the staff is expecting for nacho day.

On average, they’ll serve more than 100 during breakfast and close to 500 for all three lunches.

“Today, we’ll go over five (hundred) for the nacho bar,” Clark says.

She knows that because the lunchroom has been operating with some impressive technology for a few years now. A computer program called NutriKids acts as the heart of Clark’s operation and there are precious few things it can’t do.

For starters, it allows students to get a student ID number and retain it all through junior high and high school. They can deposit money onto an account for spending at the cafeteria, which rolls over from year to year.

Clark can plug recipes into the system that students request and work out serving amounts so as not to burst the sealing for health standards.

Perhaps most importantly, the system can alert lunch staffers for students who have food-borne allergies.

One student this year is allergic to pineapple and Clark doesn’t take any risks, going so far as to use a separate pizza slicer when cutting up meat lovers’ and Hawaiian pizzas.

“As soon as I heard I had a kid who was allergic to pineapple I tagged one of these,” she says, displaying the slicer. “I don’t know how bad his allergy is, but I don’t want to take a chance.

“That’s why I like that system so much.”

8:50 a.m. — At this point, the kitchen is buzzing and three more staffers — Yukari Everson, Kiyomi Garner and Traci Brown — show up to help out.

They’re soon joined by one more: CKSD Food Service Director Sam Blazer. Blazer stops by a handful of secondary schools each day. His assistant does the same, but at elementary schools.

Blazer’s role, as well as his assistant’s, is more or less to see that things are running smoothly and to try and accommodate kitchen staffers with whatever they may need.

Believe it or not, Blazer eats lunch a lot of the time, too.

“You bet I do,” he says. “Every kitchen I go to, I usually sample the food.”

He lists macaroni and cheese and tuna noodle casserole as his favorite dishes, but there are few things he doesn’t like. If he dislikes something enough, he’ll get rid of it. Just recently, for example, Blazer axed deep fried food across the district.

“Not only is that a high fat thing, that has saved us a lot of money,” he says. “It allowed us to spend it on fruits and vegetables, which I agree are healthier.”

10:05 a.m. — Blazer’s not the only one who eats lunch at school. Just before students crowd into the cafeteria, the lunch staff tests their work.

“Let me put it to you this way, I tell my girls this: I don’t want anything going out there that I wouldn’t eat myself,” Clark said. “I eat here everyday.”

It’s quiet during the staff lunch, which is an extreme juxtaposition of what’s about to happen.

10:20 a.m. — A few kids filter into the cafeteria, but they’re followed by a deluge of students who quickly crowd the regular lunch line and, to an even greater extent, the nacho bar.

“Guys, one scoop of cheese!” Farrell yells as she tries to control the increasing mob of nacho fans.

“Every now and then I come by and say, ‘remember the rule, one scoop each,’ and they give me the evil eye and then do the extra scoop when I turn my back,” she said.

Not even staffers are immune to the temptations of the nacho bar.

Asked if she’d be eating healthy, Acting Principal Barb Gilchrist replied, “Not for long — it’s nacho day!”

Farrell calls the shouting and hollering “normal,” which is probably a good thing — she and the staff have two more lunch periods before they head home and hit the hay early to do the whole thing over again.

“It’s not a hard job,” Farrell says. “It’s just a fast-paced job.”

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