Lisa Perkins preps trays as students at Waverley Elementary School start to line up in the cafeteria for lunch.
“Hello my friend,” Perkins says to nearly every student as she ducks her head down to meet their eye level and asks them what they want to eat.
The lunch menu on this Monday, the start of National School Lunch week, includes a variety of items. Students choose from a corn dog, a slice of cheese or pepperoni pizza, or penne pasta with marinara sauce and chicken meatballs.
The corn dog seems to be the most popular choice.
For a vegetable, there’s green beans or a side salad, and for fruit students can choose a whole apple or pear, wedges of oranges, or cups of grapes or canned peaches.
It’s Perkins’ 10th year working as a Frederick County Public School food service employee. A former pre-K instructor, the mom of two joined FCPS because of the hours a food service job would offer her, but she stayed because of the kids.
“I love interacting with [the students],” Perkins says. “They love to tell you about their day especially if they’re going on a field trip.”
Perkins likes to make sure that every child gets exactly what they want to eat, and no one is disappointed, especially her “special friend” who is a student at Waverley with autism.
Perkins knows this student likes to have his lunch on a red tray and have his pizza sliced in two. She also makes sure to save some crunchy fruits and vegetables for him. Those are his favorite.
“I want them to leave with a smile on their face,” Perkins said.
Being a food service workers for FCPS is a tough job. They are on the clock anywhere from three to eight hours each day and are paid a starting hourly wage of $12.75. A majority are also non-benefited.
The job is advertised as something that will work well with a stay-at-home parent’s schedule and many seem to begin for that reason alone such as Liz Zeigler, Site Assistant at Waverley Elementary.
She has worked in FCPS cafeterias for 22 years — 20 of those at Waverley.
“When the kids were off, I was off. It was the perfect job for raising a family for me,” Zeigler says.
The first lunch shift at Waverley begins at 11:05 a.m. which means Zeigler, Perkins and others come in hours before to prep lunch for almost 400 kids.
Waverley Elementary is also in a special program called “Community Eligibility Provision” where every student is given free breakfast and lunch. Schools qualify for this program based on the number of enrolled direct certified families, which according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are children who are eligible for free meals without the need for household applications.
Heather Tigner, floater site assistant for FCPS, explained that for many students at Waverley and other schools, lunch and breakfast may be their only full meals of the day.
“A lot of the kids don’t get set meals or all the meals they need to have so it’s important that every kid can get lunch and breakfast,” Tigner says. “In case they go home and can’t have dinner we know they had two meals.”
Lunch options vary each day at Waverley and other elementary schools from “Hot Honey” sloppy Joe’s to General Tso’s chicken with rice but there is always cheese pizza and always jelly and “Wowbutter” sandwich – a spread made of soybeans that is meant to taste like peanut butter and acts as a substitution to protect children with nut allergies.
Children choose something different every day, but surprisingly fruits and salads are a big hit, Perkins says.
“They really love the fresh fruits and vegetables,” she says. “But it all depends on the kid’s mood that day. If it’s cold outside they usually like something hot.”
The push by FCPS to focus on more nutritious and healthy lunches has made parents more trustworthy of what the school system is serving, Zeigler said.
“With the summer program, that’s where the parents come through so they get to see what the kids are eating. They see our variety of fruits and vegetables and the pizza isn’t a frozen pizza,” Zeigler says. “It’s not the mystery meat conception anymore.”
Monica Skidmore, Food and Nutrition Specialist for FCPS, agrees. She develops menus for every single school cafeteria in FCPS.
“Parents didn’t want to give their kids school lunches because they were bad, which back in the day was true but now there is such a focus on healthy lunches and it’s becoming a lot easier to provide that,” Skidmore said.
But for Perkins it’s still all about the kids, especially the ones who are so little they can’t even reach the counter.
“They are so cute ... and you get to interact with them which is a big thing for me,” she says. “I like to see the kids with their smiles. It’s refreshing to come in every day.”
Zeigler, whose own children have now long left grade school, says she has no plans to stop serving students daily breakfast and lunch.
“As long as I can do it, I will. I enjoy coming in here,” she says. “[The students] appreciate us so I feel good coming to work.”