Nutrition Services teams serve lunches with love

Nutrition Services teams serve lunches with love
Posted on 09/16/2021
It’s hard to learn, if you’re hungry. 

It’s an obvious truth, but so central to what Tahoma’s Nutrition Services staff members do that it’s important to recognize their major contribution to the district’s overall mission. 

During non-COVID years, the members of the Central Kitchen staff and each building’s Nutrition Services teams carefully plan and prepare meals for Tahoma students. Throughout the pandemic, the team has adjusted and adapted, serving meals curbside and now in brown bag meals that are free to any student. But their impact is much larger than simply putting meals on plates or in to-go bags – for many students, the friendship and warmth that kitchen staff members offer is a high point in their day.

That relationship piece is one of the best parts of the job for some of the staff members. Tahoma High School Kitchen Manager Karen Olson said she enjoys talking with the students as arrive for breakfast or lunch. She and her team members care so much for the students that they often warn them, “I’m gonna ‘mom’ you!”

“It’s great being able to see the kids coming through, and having them all back in the building,” Olson said.

As they wait for the lunch rush to begin, THS Kitchen Manager Karen Olson and Assistant Kitchen Manager Cheryl McGuire talk about interacting with students.

Assistant Manager Cheryl McGuire agreed, noting “They get excited to see us, just like we get excited to see them. We care about them, and we’re invested in their well-being.”

In non-pandemic years, the high school team has significant creative license with their menu, as long as they meet the nutritional requirements and standards. They’ve been able to come up with a line of creative pizzas and strombolis, as well as fun entrees such as bento boxes that the high school students enjoy. For now, though, due to restrictions and supply chain issues, they’re focused on the basics.

“Right now, it’s really about getting the kids fed,” Olson said. The high school team serves more than 50 breakfasts and more than 500 lunches each day, compared with a high of 450 before COVID-19. The majority of those students come through the line in the first 12 minutes of lunch.

A student who wrote a thank you note to McGuire said, “You always radiate positivity. You make it hard not to smile and be in a good mood. I’m extremely thankful for everything you do, every day.”

In another thank you note to the high school team a student wrote, “Thank you all for being so kind and friendly to every student that you see. … The simple smiles you all give and the ‘Have a good day’s can really make a difference in someone’s life, and I know you guys are already making that difference.”

Breakfasts and lunches are free to all students this school year. At the Central Kitchen, which is at the west end of the same building as Rock Creek Elementary, the team prepares about 1,200 sack lunches each day for elementary students. Requirements call for distributing individually wrapped or pre-packaged portions (rather than serving students in a line in the cafeteria). That sounds simple, but in actuality, it makes more work for each kitchen team.

“It’s really increased our production and time,” said Donna Langdahl, who works at the Central Kitchen and also at the Lake Wilderness Elementary kitchen. “We’re all kind of working extra.”

Throughout the pandemic, supply chain issues and other distribution problems have been a daily occurrence. A major food delivery that was supposed to arrive at 5 a.m. Monday was delayed until after 8 a.m. on Wednesday. Shipments of milk and produce are often late, and frequently food items that have been ordered are completely unavailable. 

“When we can’t feed our kids what is on the menu that day, it’s hard,” Langdahl said, noting that they know how much it bothers some students – at elementary particularly – if it’s supposed to be pizza day but they end up with a sandwich, for example.

Upstairs in the office above the Central Kitchen, Nutrition Services Administrative Assistant Kelly Vaskelis keeps the endless paperwork in order. During most years, much of the job is handled in Skyward, where lunch balances are tracked. Since meals are currently free, building teams keep careful count of how many students eat each meal, and send those daily totals to Vaskelis, who tracks them in spreadsheets and then submits the totals to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. She also tracks food orders, answers parent questions, ensures food handler’s permits and certifications are up to date, and makes sure the team members are paid.

“It’s a lot of double-checking and triple-checking,” Vaskelis said. “It’s a lot more paperwork than it has been in the past.”

Nutrition Services Supervisor Mary Nowak said that since March of 2020 her whole team has adapted very well, tackling different tasks, stopping up when another staff member is out of the office, and working diligently. “They have been extremely flexible throughout,” Nowak said. “We were on the curb (serving meals) when we had poor air quality, snow and freezing rain.”

Shadow Lake Elementary parent Marissa Bradford said that talking with the team at the curb was a bright spot for her family when school buildings were closed. “The people who handed out lunches last year at Lake Wilderness during remote learning were a bright spot in my son’s day. He loved that they remembered him day after day, that he preferred one regular and one chocolate milk. Their warmth and kindness cheered me up, too.”

Rock Creek Principal Chris Thomas said his team of Melissa Delacruz, Julie McKenney and Diana Young “is efficient, positive and flexible to meet the specific food needs of students. They are the best!”

At Summit Trail Middle School, the team in the kitchen is "continually working to make our lunch program more streamlined while at the same time providing lunches to all STMS students wanting one," Assistant Principal Paul Gardner said. "This year our lunchtimes are clearly different from any prior year due to COVID-19 protocols. ... I can’t thank our kitchen staff enough for their support and creativity in making lunchtime successful this year for all our students."

Leesa Sandiford, who usually works in the kitchen at Shadow Lake Elementary, now also helps out at the Central Kitchen. While working to pack some of the daily 1,200 sack lunches at the Central Kitchen, Sandiford talked about why she likes her job.

“I really enjoy being a lunch lady. Students are always very happy to come and get lunch,” she said. “There’s nobody that’s not smiling, when it’s time for lunch.”

The kitchen team at Summit Trail Middle School
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 16, 2021 issue of Tahoma Matters. To read the rest of that newsletter, click here.
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