The men and women behind the counter

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The men and women behind the counter

School cafeteria workers describe the meat and potatoes of the job
From staff reports
Published Monday, August 8, 2011   |  1105 Words  |  

The preferred terminology is "student nutrition department staff."

But you probably know them as lunch ladies.

Of course, that's not accurate -- especially because plenty of them are men.

So let's put the stereotypes to rest. The hair nets. The rubber gloves. The moles. This isn't what defines Sodexo's 170 employees found in the Beaufort County School District's 32 schools.

"We have the greatest food service staff," area manager Larry Wilson said. "These (people) are so committed and so devoted to what they do, and they take their job so seriously."

It's a lot of responsibility -- making 20,000 kids happy. The cafeteria staff receives, stores and prepares food. It manages the employees and sets up lines. It also makes sure all food meets Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points standards. Some cafeteria workers have been with the district for more than 30 years, working alongside teachers and principals, who came through their lines as students years ago.

We talked to some of the district's finest cafeteria managers to find out what it's like behind the counter.

Name: Gardenia Brown

School: Beaufort High School

Years of employment: 43

First job: "I started working at the old Robert Smalls before integration. I was a baker. We baked cinnamon rolls, biscuits, pastries, rolls. Sometimes we made our own hamburger buns."

Biggest change since the 1960s: "Everything we did then was mostly fresh, made from scratch. Everything now comes pre-done, like in a can or frozen."

Most popular foods: In the '60s, Brown said, students enjoyed liver and onions, homemade mashed potatoes and fried chicken. Nowadays, they prefer pizza.

Favorite part of the job: "I love talking to the kids. Some of them open up pretty good to you. I just listen. It couldn't have been the money because when I started working I got a dollar an hour, and I got paid once a month."

Biggest misconception about "lunch ladies": "They aren't grumpy and mean. I'm here to help them. Smiles can go a long way."

Plans to retire: "I'm going to stay here as long as I'm able to work, as long as they'll have me. I just love my job."

Staff writer Hannah H. Carroll

Name: Kissie Gordon

School: Red Cedar Elementary School

Years of employment: 12

How she got started: Gordon comes from a long line of cooks, including her grandmother. "She actually was a lunch lady, and that is where it all started in my family."

Personal favorite school food: Chicken nachos made from fajita chicken, nacho cheese and wheat chips

Favorite food to cook for students: Spanish beefaroni "because it is different and the kids have never had it before. They like it, and it gives them lots of vegetables inside and they don't know it."

Favorite part of the job: "Making everybody happy and trying to please everybody from the principals to the teachers to my employers to, most importantly, the students."

Biggest misconception about "lunch ladies": "The food is not nasty, and we don't look the way they make us out to look. Cafe managers are beautiful people."

Funniest moment: While at the Bluffton Boys & Girls Club, Gordon ran into a student from the school who asked her, " 'Would you teach my mama how to cook chicken nuggets?' I told him, 'Definitely, I'll teach her.' "

Staff writer Cathy Carter Harley

Name: Gregory Lightner

School: Bluffton Middle School

Years of employment: 7

How he got into food service: "I used to be the executive pastry chef at the Hilton (Oceanfront Resort) before I came to the school system. The hotel hours are crazy. I wanted to do something where I could spend more time with my kids. I had five kids in school at the time."

Cafeteria philosophy: "I tell the people here, 'It doesn't matter if you're going to cook a hot dog or a piece of Kobe beef, you should take pride in what you're doing.' Our staff eat lunch every day in the school. I'm a firm believer that if you cook it, you should want to eat it."

Students' least-favorite food: "The kids like most things here. The one thing they didn't like was the hummus. ... (I loved the hummus, by the way.)"

Misconceptions about school lunches: "We have no processed fruits and vegetables. It's all fresh. A lot of kids get to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables they may not have gotten to eat. A lot of families can't afford to go out and buy a fresh pound of strawberries or something like that."

Favorite part of job: "The kids. All the kids know my name. I know about 85 percent of the kids here by name. My kids go here, too. Last year, I'd have to remind my daughter that I am at work and, 'No, you and your friends can't come and see me every five minutes (laughs).' "

Staff writer Justin Paprocki

Name: Bonnie Goldinger

School: H.E. McCracken Middle School

Years of employment: 26

Other schools where she's worked: Michael C. Riley Elementary School, Hilton Head Elementary School and Hilton Head Island High School

What you should know about "lunch ladies": "Lunch ladies" are often depicted as unfriendly, but Goldinger said that couldn't be further from the truth. "It's just that a lot of my ladies will look up and have 100 kids in line," she said. "But everybody does have a really good side. ... It's just sometimes we're a little overwhelmed."

Best job perk: The hours. She works 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every week day and gets to enjoy her weekends and holidays. "I have a lot of family time," Goldinger said, adding that the work schedule was the reason she took the job in the first place. Her children were in school at the time, and she wanted to be on the same schedule.

What it's like at work: She and the six food service operators at McCracken don't have a lot of down time to socialize, but they try to have some fun. "A lot of times I'll start singing a song," Goldinger said. "We're just like a family."

Staff writer Amy Bredeson