by Paula Redmann | Submitted Photos
Hang on. Wait for it.
They’re not called Lunch Ladies anymore.
Nope. They are NOT Lunch Ladies.
Take a deep breath to get over the shock of that unsettling news, and then know that the 104 women and five men who prepare breakfast, lunch, snacks, and summer meals for students in Bismarck Public Schools (BPS) are not just ladies, and they’re so much more than lunch.
These folks have the pulse on school life like no other. They complete the trifecta of who runs the school, along with their dynamic duo counterparts: the janitors and the office staff. (A shout out of love to all the amazing teachers, support staff, and administrators, but you all know this to be true.) Maybe it’s because they’re parents themselves, or they’ve watched a child grow from a teeny kindergartener to a bouncy fifth grader, or they see a “look” in a student’s eyes and know today’s turkey and gravy might help.
Michelle Wagner, child nutrition director for BPS, gently breaks the news that the staff dedicated to preparing 10,787 meals a day are referred to and revered as school nutrition professionals.
“These people need to know breads, grains, fruits, and sub-groups of food. They know nutrition. They know federal guidelines and go through training to provide a quality product. They’re professionals, for sure,” says Michelle.
Kitchen and kid stats come easily to Michelle. She knows that 15 percent of BPS’s 13,007 students eat breakfast at school and 67 percent eat lunch there.
“The lunch numbers for secondary students go up when it gets colder, because students eat in rather than leave the building for lunch. We have the data on that and can plan for it,” she explains.
Michelle and her team crunch all those numbers to do their annual meal planning.
“We’ll sit down in January and start planning for the 2019-2020 school year. We’ll figure out what to order and when, and we’ll tweak and try new recipes.”
The data also shows what students like.
“Lasagna is popular, and so is chicken, whether it’s a chicken nugget or chicken patty,” MIchelle says. “Anything with tacos goes over well. We tried chili on the secondary level, along with chicken and waffles.”
(Note: That’s chicken AND waffles, not chicken OR waffles. Michelle says it’s southern, y’all.)
Meals are cooked on site at 23 Bismarck schools every day. At the elementary level, a kitchen is staffed with one to four school nutrition professionals. They arrive before 7 a.m. so that breakfast is served by 7:45 a.m. A small elementary school may serve breakfast for 30 students, whereas a larger school serves 125. It’s more labor intensive at the secondary level due to more meal options and more students, so eight to 10 school nutrition professionals are needed to prepare that day’s selections.
Once breakfast is finished, it’s clean up, put away, and start up for lunch. At some schools, the first tsunami of kids come to lunch at 11 a.m.
“There’s very little down time in the kitchen. It’s preparation, serve, clean up, and go again,” says Michelle. “We’re always willing to try new things to make sure kids get the nutrition they need.”
Examples include starting an after-school snack station called Eats and Treats at Bismarck’s three public high schools. Simle Middle School has a breakfast cart for kids to grab a hot or cold breakfast. Myhre Elementary School has a free breakfast in the classroom program for every student.
“And many staff continue that mission over the summer by preparing and serving at the free summer lunch program in the parks,” says Michelle.
See? They’re so much more than lunch.
The school nutrition professionals are a team of kitchen soldiers who march in cadence to the order of the next meal. They are marketers armed with research on what their customers like and don’t like. They are project managers, knowing what needs to be ordered, delivered to the warehouse, and produced in the kitchen. They are scientists, knowing that the right amounts of grains, meat, fruit, and fluid milk (yes, fluid milk, as opposed to a more solid dairy product, like yogurt) stokes the nutritional furnace in young bodies to keep their bodies and brains running at full throttle. They are kitchen CPAs, keeping track of revenues, expenses, government subsidies, commodities, and the number of customers fed every day. They are information technology experts, providing the option of a phone app to tailor menu needs for your child, allergies and all. They are rule followers, making sure your child has the federally mandated five food components with every meal.
“These people have a genuine heart and they know the kids. They don’t have them in a traditional classroom with tests and grades. They make sure they’re cared for and fed.”