Giving Thanks to Lunchroom Heroes

By Carolyn Lyon James

Am I the only one who thinks that school lunchroom staff members are the nicest and happiest people in the school building? Maybe it’s because lunch is everybody’s favorite class subject. (I know it was the one class I really excelled at!) I also think it takes a certain kind of person to serve up two meals each day to hundreds of hungry kids.

When I worked at Viola Gibson Elementary, the lunch staff always dressed up as superheroes, witches, or scarecrows to serve lunch on Halloween. For Christmas, they dressed as elves and Santa Claus.

At Harding Middle School, if you walked past the lunchroom during the lunchroom staff’s morning meeting, you would hear excited chatter followed by gales of laughter. Many times, I fought the urge to walk in and plop myself down at the nearest table, just to be a part of their friendly banter. Even at the high school level, where the staff serves anywhere from 800 to 1,200 students per day, the lunchroom staff members take great strides to learn the names of all the students who go through their lines.

I sat down and spoke with two lunchroom staff members at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids: Cori Nebiker and Kelly Schmidt. Between them, they have 50 years of experience serving breakfast and lunch to school-age kids. The two have been working together so long, they can finish each other’s sentences. They tend to dress the same, and they even admitted that they’ve started having similar dreams at night.

I asked them to tell me about any big changes they’ve seen over the years. Cori laughed and said, “Well, the dishwasher breaking down really changed things here. We had to get creative about how we served meals while still keeping everything sanitary, especially since the Covid pandemic.”

How long has the dishwasher been broken? “Oh, about five or six years,” she said.

Rather than fix or replace the dishwasher that had been in use since the building was built in 1976, the district decided to purchase disposable plates and utensils. But the lunchroom staff has figured out ways to make it all work. The time they would have spent handling dishes for the machine is now used to sort and bundle food to serve, ensuring that everything stays clean and sanitary for the students. Cori said they have been stockpiling paper plates and paper towels, so they don’t run out due to the ongoing paper shortage. “I think we already have enough plates to get us through to the end of the school year!”

Another big change to school meals was announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in April, and many people don’t know about it: Every public school student, from kindergarten through 12th grade, gets free breakfast and lunch through the rest of the school year.

Cori and Kelly told me they’ve started seeing kids they’ve never seen in the cafeteria before, coming in and getting meals. “It’s such a relief knowing that any kid who wants to eat can come down and get a meal — two meals! — every day. I hope it continues,” they said in tandem. (They really do finish each other’s sentences, making it impossible to know who’s actually speaking.)

I hope it continues, too: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if students were forever guaranteed two meals a day at school? Kids go through so much in a typical day; hunger should not be one of those things.

“You wonder what the situation is when some of these kids are sitting at a table, not eating,” Cori/Kelly said. At times, they’ve gone to school administrators to see if something could be done to help these kids and their families. “It’s a good feeling, knowing that (the administrators) listen to us and take these kids aside to see what’s going on.”

So, in this month of Thanksgiving, I am thankful that every school-age kid in the United States is getting fed at least twice a day, five days a week. And I offer my heartfelt thanks to all the wonderful lunchroom heroes who greet these kids every day with a smile and get to know them — really know them! — as they pass through the school lunch line.