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The challenge: Lunch ladies tackle school menu

Brenda Cicirello continues to ensure good lunches for the students she serves. Cicirello has been working in school food services for 11 years.


Staff Writer

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You might not know their names, but you definitely remember their faces — just as they remember yours.

In any school system, those same friendly faces known as lunch ladies — serving up lunches in school cafeterias throughout your childhood — become somewhat of a fixture. But the lunch lady has changed in recent years — as has the whole of school cafeterias and the food it provides.

In an effort to take a closer look at the story of today’s school lunch in Washington County, the Herald & Tribune turned to school officials and local food service professionals. How do the schools get their food? What is the perspective of today’s “lunch lady”? What are the school system’s challenges in this changed area of the educational system?

And what better place to start a story than those who have dedicated their lives’ work to the county’s foods, kitchens and kids — the local lunch lady.

The changes

For 11 years, Brenda Cicirello has served Washington County students as they filed into lines for lunch.

Boones Creek “lunch ladies” get ready for another day. Pictured are Brenda Cicirello, Tim Trick, Marilyn Odom, Martha Wallace, Felicia Greer, Penny Fowler, and Karen Jennings.

From her days behind the deep fryer at David Crockett High School to her current role as the prep kitchen manager at Boones Creek Elementary School, Cicirello has seen the school cafeteria’s metamorphosis throughout recent years. The one thing that hasn’t changed for her, however, is the joy she’s filled with as her cafeteria grows with chatter, laughter and hungry students.

“This is the best part of my day,” Cicirello said as a line of anxious students formed behind her. “There is no greater joy than to be able to feed a child (when) that child is hungry and you get to be an inspiration to that child. He can start his day off and no matter what has come around that day, you can make a difference in a child.”

But the the 3,459 lunches served in the Washington County system have changed. And those changes all started at the top when the American school lunch system saw a shift in food restrictions.

Under the Obama Administration, the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed. The school lunch regulations gave the United Stated Department of Agriculture the authority to set new standards for food sold in schools (including that found in vending machines). The new regulations included emphasis on whole-grains (products had to be at least 50 percent whole-grain); a minimum of fruits and vegetable servings; restrictions on sodium, sugar, and fat content in food; and limitations requiring nonfat flavored milk or 1 percent white milk.

In Cicirello’s time in Washington County’s school cafeterias, she said those restrictions warranted the biggest change she has yet to see in the school system’s food operations — a decrease in the amount of kids still eating school lunches.

“I think it was about seven or eight years ago that we went to the whole-grain switch,” Cicirello recalled. “We saw a tremendous decline in our participation. We were getting prepared for this and we knew that our numbers would decline. Everyone said, ‘Give it a couple of years. The kids will come back.’ But it was a big decline and they still just haven’t come back.”

As America tried to lessen obesity rates through new school lunch regulations, Washington County has since had to change its ways as well.

Anyone who grew up in the Washington County School system long before 2010’s changes might recall the days of meals made from scratch by a lunch lady with a knack for producing home-cooked dishes and what Washington County Director of Schools Bill Flanary said many considered a fond memory — the days when two lunch ladies were tasked with only making desserts each day for county students. But now, restrictions make preparing food a bit more tedious.

“I think they’re trying to get back to where we prepare a lot of things from recipes,” Flanary said. “It’s not just a dash of this and a cup of that. When they do prepare something from a recipe, they have to weigh everything (due to the restrictions).

“It’s a constant challenge to put something in front of kids that’s both healthy and palatable. No one wants to see a kid hungry because they just don’t see anything they like to eat. We can’t put fried pies in front of them though.”

Down to a science

Though Flanary said the school’s food service staff is working to get back to recipes, figuring what food makes its way to students in local cafeterias is more of a science than ever before.

One young student takes a closer look at the offerings. Providing nutritious meals that children will eat is the constant challenge for school lunch personnel.

School food services have to offer certain amounts of meats/meat alternatives, grains, fruits, vegetables and fluid milk and those amounts vary according to a student’s grade level. While grades K-5 and 6-8 must be offered 2 1/2 cups of fruit a week, grades 9-12 must have a minimum of 5 cups offered a week.

Not only are they required to provide certain amounts of each of those five groups, but schools have to offer specific vegetables in different subcategories. These include weekly offerings of dark green vegetables (such as broccoli, collard greens and kale), red/orange vegetables (like sweet potatoes, acorn squash, and carrots), starchy vegetables (such as potatoes, or green peas), legumes (such as black beans or black-eyes peas), and other vegetables (such as artichokes, asparagus or celery).

Washington County’s Food Service Director Caitlin Shew said choosing what goes on school lunch trays in the county requires a weighing of numerous factors including funds and what students want on their trays.

“You can’t just throw out any vegetables that you want,” Shew said. “You have to meet these minimums. With the federal reimbursement rates and the participation and all those kinds of factors that play into the funds that we actually get, you might choose carrots over a red pepper because of the financials. Carrots are typically a cheaper vegetable to purchase.

“When we’re looking at these things we’re also looking not to just provide the minimums regarding these, but what’s going to give us the most bang for our buck and what do the kids want.”

With so much attention on meeting dietary minimums, affordability and keeping kids wanting what is offered to them in the cafeteria, lunch ladies are required to pay more attention than ever before.

“People just don’t know. They just think you’re putting out some food. They don’t realize how much work went into that one meal,” said Shew, who served as a lunch lady earlier in her career. “I think lunch ladies get this stigma that they’re just putting food on trays and they don’t care.

“Those women out in those schools care so much about those kids. They’re the first people there in the morning. They’ve got a deep relationship with these kids. They’re just the best people. I want people to know that they’re doing their best. They’re caring for these kids.”

Look for part two of the school lunch series in next week’s Herald & Tribune.