A Whole New Kind of Lunch Lady at Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center

I don’t know about you, but until recently, the words “lunch lady” conjured less than pleasant memories of crabby women in hairnets glopping mystery meat and mashed potatoes onto plastic trays with ice cream scoops. Had I taken a moment to consider their point of view, I suppose I might have realized how annoying it would be to dish out food, day after day, to disrespectful kids yelling “ewwww, gross!” I’m ashamed to admit that this level of empathy was beyond me in my elementary school years. I was too busy yelling “ewwww, gross!”

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting a whole new kind of lunch lady: the lovely Anita Clare, Food Service Manager at Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center in Minneapolis. After spending a little over an hour with Anita in her domain (the kitchen at Emerson), I left feeling stunned by all the balls she consistently keeps in the air and pretty darned impressed by the food available to the kindergarten through fifth grades at the school on a daily basis.

According to Anita, her job requires that she constantly be looking at both her calendar and her watch. In addition to getting the food set up for breakfast by 7:15 every morning and lunch a couple hours later, Anita is in charge of keeping track of inventory and ordering food every day for breakfast and lunch two weeks later.

The menus are on a two week cycle, so Anita’s simultaneously thinking about serving today’s breakfast and lunch, storing tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch when it gets delivered, and ordering those meals to be delivered in two weeks. All the while, she's assessing the hits and misses so she knows how much to order for the next time. Storage space is extremely tight in Anita's kitchen, so she often has to move things from temporary storage in the freezer to the fridge after space has been cleared by the last meal. She also does taste testing and fills out feedback forms that go back to the nutrition center. Although not technically part of her job description, Anita also helps non-English speaking parents translate and fill out forms for free- and reduced-price lunch applications. It goes without saying that she knows all the children by name.

Anita describes her food service philosophy (and the school's policy) as “offer versus serve.” In an attempt to discourage waste and teach the children to make good food choices, Anita devised a simple but ingenious point system whereby the children strive for three or more points for a complete breakfast or lunch. For example, the main breakfast choices (cereal, bagel and cream cheese, yogurt with granola bar, or fruit muffin) are each worth two points and students must choose one of them. Milk, juice, and fruit are each worth one point. Anita created an easy-to-use chart (in Spanish and English) so that parents and children can all understand what is offered and how to pick and choose.

Anita is a mom and when I asked her whether she found it hard to resist pressuring the kids to take the healthy stuff, she smiled and admitted she works on the kindergartners and first graders, encouraging them to try new things. Anita doesn’t meddle as much with the older kids, preferring to let them figure out how they feel if they don’t eat enough on a particular day. Anita also uses her sneaky mom ways, putting the fruits and veggies (they have three fruit or vegetable options every day!) on the first table, where they are more likely to be chosen. Of course, there are favorites -- like mini pancakes, cheese pizza, and mac n’ cheese sticks -- but Anita said a fair amount of the kids take the “big salad” as well. I couldn’t believe it when she showed it to me. It was a gorgeous Greek salad with fresh lettuce, feta, red onion, and even a pepperoncini! A pepperoncini! I almost swiped it and put it in my purse!

I asked Anita how she felt about the recent decision by Minneapolis Food Services to remove sugar cereals from the menu, given what Simple, Good, and Tasty had learned in our interview with Nicole Barron and Irfan Chaudhry -- specifically that “school food reimbursements from the federal government are distributed based on the number of children who take the food; the more kids who take the food, the more money the district has to spend.” Anita replied that it is true that the children’s choices absolutely affect the bottom line, but that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. She slyly added, “it all depends how you market it to the kids.” She then pulled out a piece of paper and excitedly rattled off the options that will soon be available: Rice Krispies, Mini Wheats, Rice Chex, Heart to Heart, Kashi, Kicks, and Multi-Grain Cheerios, to name a few. As I listened to her, it occurred to me that Anita is as much a teacher as a lunch lady. She uses her proximity to the children and whatever influence she has to shape their nutritional lives while at school. 

Anita told me a few times how much she loves her job. If she could wave a magic wand she would ask for a bigger, more workable kitchen with better storage space that is attached to the cafeteria. At Emerson, the children walk a short distance to a separate room to eat, and Anita wishes she could see what and how the kids eat. And yet, she has found a way to work around the limitations in space, menu options, time constraints, and picky palates to make her domain a place where children begin to learn how to make healthy choices about food. More importantly, these lucky Emerson kids see the connection between food and joy, every single day, in Anita Clare’s smile.



Gabriela Lambert is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. You can also read more of her writing on her blog