The 7th period lunch rush is over. Lunch line doors have closed, students have vacated the cafeteria, and tables have been wiped down for the third and final time of the day. But the inside of the kitchen is still bustling with activity: immediately after lunch ends, the kitchen staff have already started preparing food for tomorrow.
Hampton’s cafeteria workers provide an essential service for us. Everyone knows that they are responsible for the school food, but there are more parts of the job than students might realize. Regardless, they deserve recognition and appreciation for their hard work.
Ms. Cindy Dunbar has been with the HHS kitchen for two years. She considers herself to be new, and it’s true that current seniors have been here longer than her. But she’s had the daily routine down for a while now and thoroughly knows the ins and outs of the job.
Concerning her responsibilities, Ms. Dunbar says, “It’s a hard job trying to keep everyone fed.” And the biggest challenge since she started working here? Everything to do with COVID, of course.
The switch from plastic to styrofoam closed the tray-washing station, but after the pandemic, the school will go back to the plastic trays. While most schools are using plastic trays right now, the HHS kitchen still needs people to fill positions.
Since the last school year, schools around the nation have also been receiving more food for free breakfasts and lunches with support from the government. Hampton participates in the National School Lunch Program. As a result of the pandemic, the Seamless Summer Option based on the NSLP allows for breakfast and lunch to be free to all students without previous eligibility considerations. This measure was intended to not only lessen hunger and nutrition concerns for children but also combat the spread of COVID-19 with decreased time processing payments in lunch lines.
Ms. Dunbar welcomes the extra work as more kids are enjoying school lunches on the regular. No one has to go home hungry anymore; some are even eating a free meal along with their packed lunches. Something else Ms. Dunbar doesn’t think people know is that she truly enjoys her job. For her, “being a lunch lady can be fun. I get to know the kids, interact with them, especially yell at them for causing trouble.”
Including Ms. Dunbar, just seven women cook every meal served in our cafeteria. On a regular day, work begins around 6 A.M. and ends at 3 P.M., and every job is different. Altogether, mornings are occupied with getting breakfast ready, serving it, and cleaning up. Breakfast starts at 7:50 and ends at 8:20 A.M., making it a great motivator for students to get to school on time.
Afterwards, the kitchen staff focuses on lunch, and then they clean up while getting ready for the next day. Cookies for the next day begin to be frosted by hand before students with 7th period lunch are even finished eating. Fruit trays, veggie trays, sandwiches, pizzas, salad bar, cookies, etc., are made daily and coolers are restocked every day. Our food service workers try to clean as they go since with the volume of food they handle, they can’t have a messy work station.
With set duties to keep operations smooth, when even one worker is missing, the kitchen suddenly has to deal with much more stress. For this reason, there are substitute cafeteria workers, and they are frequently needed at Hampton.
Along with making them, all of the food service workers eat the lunches. As employees, they are entitled to a free meal under company policy.
And students do generally enjoy the food as well. Sophomore David Poirier “kinda” likes the lunches. Becky Zhou ‘22 loves the pasta meals and eats the breakfasts every day. Her one reserve is the mandatory components of lunch: “I don’t like the milk. They only offer low-fat. And people throw away the vegetables. It’s a waste of money.”
Rumors about the beef, bacon, or eggs served in the cafeteria being fake are constantly in circulation, according to Becky. But nothing about the lunches, especially where the food comes from, is kept a secret. If you have questions, all you have to do is ask the cafeteria workers.
Everything aside from produce and milk comes from Hampton’s main distributor US Foods with the current supply chain. The truck visits HHS once a week on Wednesdays, and with changing meals, every shipment is different. Freezer items are stored in boxes and carried into a freezer while cooler and dry items go to their respective places in the kitchen.
There are also offices inside the kitchen, separate from cooking areas. Ms. Mindy Baginski works in one of the offices as the Metz food service director. Metz Culinary Management provides food service management for Hampton schools.
Ms. Baginski ensures that regulations for school food are being followed, especially with nutrition. The cafeteria offers a certain amount of sodium and whole grains, and the milk has to be 1% fat. Ms. Baginski makes the monthly breakfast and lunch menus with input from the lead cooks in each building. Her typical work day involves handling call offs, cooking, running food, serving, and doing dishes. She also monitors student lunch money accounts and issues refunds, and it’s true that students cannot withdraw money from their accounts. More about checks, lunch accounts, and lunch money can be found on the district’s Food Service FAQ page.
In regard to students throwing away their milk, fruit, or veggie without drinking or eating it, Ms. Baginski says, “It is terrible to waste the food.” The regulations that make these components mandatory are set by the NSLP, and the school has to follow them.
With Thanksgiving coming up, the food service department has put together a festive lunch on Tuesday the 23rd: a hot turkey sandwich with gravy for the entree and mashed potatoes as the featured vegetable. With the current product shortages, the cafeteria is running with what they have access to in order to still keep the holiday specials tradition alive.