Lunch Lady Q & A

Last week I told you that a bonafide “Lunch Lady” emailed me and wanted to take your questions. Well, you did not hold back: there were close close to 80 questions. I tried to delete some of the repetitive ones so as not to overwhelm our sweet volunteer, but the questions were so good, I couldn’t edit very much out. Our Lunch Lady was up to the challenge and answered all of them below. It is a long post, but I think you will enjoy her perspective on school lunch. She is a caring woman with a sharp wit — she really got to me. She is blunt and speaks the truth (you will agree – she needs her own blog because she is super funny). Without further delay….

First off I want to start off by telling you a little bit about myself. I live in Ky and have 2 daughters. I have been at my school for 10+ years and I love my job. Being a lunch lady is the best. It is so rewarding and a great job to have if you have school aged children because you have the benefit of being home when your kids are home and working while they are gone. 

I have met so many wonderful children over the past 10+ years and some that I will never forget. Some have gone on to get married and lead happy lives and others, well, have not been so fortunate: they are in jail or dead. The school that I work in is in an area that is very low income with the majority of the parents not working and being on some sort of federal assistance….and drugs. I would say that about 60 percent of the children at my school are being raised by their grandparents. Either their parents are strung out or in jail. It is a very sad situation. But that is what makes my job so much more rewarding: knowing that I can make a difference in this child’s day even if it is even only for the lunch period. Some food and a smile goes a long way for some of the students. No matter what kind of food it is. 

  1. How many students get served school lunch every day? Around 400
  2. What do you think of the cost of the food that being served is it correctly priced for what it is and how much the school paid for it? Only the manager and main office people would have that information so as a lunch lady I am not sure. I can only speak for the cost of the school lunches itself and that is $2.35 but not a lot of the children pay as we are 97 percent free… 
  3. Do you ever feel guilty serving/making lunches for students that you know are distasteful? And — how do you respond to students who tell you something looks/tastes gross? Do you respond that way even if you agree with them? I feel guilty most days but there are some days that we do have what I would consider a good school lunch such as fresh fruit and tuna on a bed of lettuce with a sliced tomatoes, we have yogurt and fruit but the processed stuff is CRAP! 
  4. How do I respond to the negative comments? Well I just try and get them to make another choice or choose a salad. The kids that complain continually I tell them to have their parents pack them a lunch or tell them to have their parent’s voice the opinions to the main people, which I can tell you will never ever happen in this school…
  5. Why don’t school lunches reflect the diversity of cultures in our nation? No diversity at all. Here it is pizza, tacos, nachos, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, chicken patties…
  6. How is the food prepared? Prepared? lol It is warmed up out of a plastic bag..or cans. We have a central kitchen that prepares our food and the food is brought to us daily by trucks for the next day. We used to cook and I can say that the quality of the food has gone downhill since then. The thing I don’t understand is they spent millions of dollars on this state of the art central kitchen had to employ people to make the food and then cut the lunchroom jobs and like I said the quality of the food is what suffered. When we cooked you could smell the fresh baked rolls all through the school and the chicken and fresh sauces smelled and tasted like home cooking.
  7. What is the best part of your job? I love my job and I love the children. There is never a day that I get up and say ughhh I hate my job or I don’t want to go to work.
  8. Have you ever tried to instigate change in your lunchroom? How were you received and what happened? Well in the lunchroom we try and do what we can but when main office comes in we don’t even try it. And if you say something their answer is we have to go by the USDA guidelines. Blah blah blah!!
  9. Also, would you personally eat the lunches you serve? Yes some of them. 
  10. Do you? Some days depends on what we are having. I am a professional dieter so I normally bring something.
  11. Do teachers and school faculty eat the lunches at your school? What kind of comments do they say about the food?  Not many of them and the reason is the cost it is $4.50 since for the same exact portion the children receive. 
  12. What, if any, fresh fruits and vegetables are available to students on a daily basis? Yes fresh fruit is offered daily as for vegetables it is all canned goods. Now we do have bag salad and fresh tomatoes daily for small salads.
  13. About what percentage of your school’s kids receive free or reduced priced lunch? 97 percent free lunch very high poverty level where the school I work at is located.    
  14. What is the hardest thing about your job? Seeing the tired and dirty and hungry children. Trying to make a change when you know you can’t. 
  15. What is the most rewarding thing about your job? Seeing a child smile when they come through the lunch line and know that I made a difference for just that moment.
  16. Does anyone who works in the kitchen ever suggest more healthy options? We do but our efforts are not taken serious. If so, does anyone listen? Nope…  
  17. How much, if any, input do you have when the menu is created? NADA, ZILCH, none at all. I think that they do have meeting ever once in a while for input but we never hear about them.    
  18. What is your favorite thing to make/serve? I like to make Mac and Cheese not because of the nutritional values but because it is something that we make extra and the kids love it. The children’s favorite is Pizza day that is brought into the school by a big pizza franchise. We pay $5.00 a pizza and make a lot off of the sales of it. 
  19. What is your least favorite?  The kids don’t like when we have what they like to call “mystery meat” which is like pressed meat loaf or pressed turkey which is not very often. 
  20. If you could make changes to the food served in your lunchroom, what would they be? Less Processed food and even though it would be more work on us. We need to go back to fixing the food in the schools.  
  21. What would you personally like to see being done differently than it’s currently done in your school? I think there should be tighter restrictions on the free lunch program and what I mean by that is that they need to check the applications more thoroughly because people lie. In my school the kids that are on free lunch have extra money to buy extra treats and the kids that are paid students never ever have any extra money because they are paying for their school lunch. 
  22. What happens to the extra food at the end of the day? You ready for this — TRASH!!! 
  23. Have you watched the new TV program “Food Revolution” and do you think that it is possible to change a school lunch system to eat healthy and fresh food every day? I definitely think it is possible but the problem is like in the school I work in the parents do not care what the kids eat – they just want them out of their house. We never ever see parents at our school. 
  24. Why are so many processed foods served in schools? Isn’t there some way to buy healthier versions for around the same price? PRICE… not sure that is not the lunch ladies’ department. 
  25. Do you have kids? Yes a freshman in college and a 7th grader. What do they like to eat? Fast Food but I don’t allow it…well sometimes.
  26. Why is it that schools do not offer vegetarian or vegan meals to students when it seems that most (at least, in my old school) students personally choose to eat this way, to eat healthfully? We do offer a vegetarian choice — it is Smackers Peanut butter and Jelly uncrustables
  27. Do you think that your school’s cafeteria serves a wide variety of food? We offer 2 or 3 meat servings a day 2 vegetables a day fresh fruit and bread.
  28. What do you think is the most important change needed to improve school lunches? Get the processed crap out of the schools.    
  29. What do you think is the most easily implemented change? More choices for the kids because we have the same thing over and over…cheap stuff… When I first started working here we have so many choices and the kids did not get fed the same thing over and over…we made homemade chili in big floor pots and homemade rolls and chicken the we cooked ourself we even chopped our own lettuce and made our own tossed salad everything is bagged and for convenience. And that is when a lot of lunchladies lost their jobs.   
  30. What do people outside the system “miss” when looking at school lunch? They take for granted the way that it is prepared and the crap that these children are being served…for example our lowfat chocolate milk had 28 grams of sugar and the “HEALTHY” honey bun has 12 so right there you are already over the daily sugar limit..But like I said before these parents have to get on board with what the children are eating and ‘our’ parents just don’t care.    
  31. What is the biggest pressure you face in your job? Losing my job and being outsourced to an independent company.
  32. Is your department (you, or one of your higher-ups) given a budget to manage independently, or is someone else (superintendent, etc.) making the purchasing decisions? Someone else.
  33. Do you feel that you have adequate time to prepare the food that you would like to serve? Yes how hard is it to open up a bag and reheat some food. 
  34. Are you/is your department given a degree of creativity in terms of the menu? Well that is a good question we had a recertification one time and they had a class on how to make the food look and appear more edible. For example blushing the pears which means sprinkling a little jell powder on top of pears for color and cutting carrots in fun shapes but we never ever have gotten powder jello.
  35. It is my understanding that part of the school lunch budget goes to food, and part of it goes to pay staff, etc. Do you think food workers like yourself are getting paid a reasonable amount? Yes I think we do. Right now our state like all other states are facing a budget crisis so no raises this year. 
  36. My grandmother was a lunch lady for over 30 years and she always complained or commented on how over the years she noticed how the cafeteria food went from homemade to more process over the years. Have you noticed the same thing? My grandma was also a lunch lady and my mom always talked about the fresh cakes that my grandma would bring home that were left over. I was young then but I know that she loved her job just like I do. When I was in high school we had a salad bar and that is what I ate every day. These days I don’t believe that any of the schools in this district even offer a salad bar. Yes just in the 12 years I have been here the food has changed from being freshly made to PROCESSED.    
  37. How long does it take to prepare the meals? Long enough to heat it up… 
  38. Could you please let me know what type of training you received?  Training that is funny. The only thing we receive is Board of Health Certification every year. We read a handbook and take a test that takes about 5 minutes.  
  39. How long the students have for lunch from start to finish and how that time breaks out — how much time do hot lunch students spend in line, how much time do they have to eat, how much time to they spend clearing up, etc? 20 minutes total. 
  40. What is the most frustrating misconception that people have about the job you do/the role you play in school lunches? I know how easy it is for people angry at the system to lash out at the only person in that system they can find (being us). That it is not the lunch ladies’ fault. We are only doing what we are told and we have to go by the guidelines. If the auditors come in and we are not following the guidelines we could lose are funding. Also the system is also following USDA guidelines and that reason is also federal funding. BLAH BLAH BLAH… 
  41. What message, if any, do you want the public, students, and faculty to walk away with? That we care about the kids and we love our job but our hands are tied when it comes to what we can do. So we give them a friendly face and kind word everyday and hopefully that makes a difference.
  42. School lunches continue to gain momentum, spurred on by the Let’s Move campaign and shows such as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. How do you feel about the way that school cafeterias are portrayed in the media? HORRIBLE and the mean lunch lady on that show is making us all look bad. I can only speak for myself – I would never act like that. I also treat every child the way I want my child treated. And if you notice whenever they show lunch ladies in like commercials or videos its always the fat lady with a hair net and moustache..Screaming at the kids.   
  43. Do you feel that current nutritional regulations often met by processed foods impede the ability of a school to serve fresher, healthier foods? NO NO NO Are we hurting ourselves when we play by only the numbers?  ABSOLUTELY…
  44. Along with how long you’ve worked as a Lunch Lady, how/why did you get into the job? I was a stay at home mom and that was very important to me so when the kids got to be school aged I was ready to go back to work and this is the best job to have if you have kids in school.
  45. Also, do you have any other jobs at the school site (or work at other schools in the district)? No our lunch ladies are shared between my site and another school. They are also our evening custodians. Not just in the cafeteria. But I can tell you that the custodians and cafeteria staff are treated about the same: like crap.    
  46. Also, are you a member of your local school staff union? No
  47. Do you even have a union? No
  48. Does your school provide alternative choices for children who had various food allergies? We only have one child that is allergic to peanuts and yes we have food for that student. The student also knows exactly what s/he can have and can’t have.
  49. Are there certain guidelines you need to follow for a ‘balanced’ meal? Yes What are those guidelines?  Entrée milk veggie and fruit and bread…you have to have three of these items but no more than 5 to be considered a reimbursable meal.
  50. Does your school district handle the entire district’s food prep offsite and deliver the finished product to be reheated at your school, YES. How does this affect your role as a “lunch lady”? We are in danger every day of losing our jobs and being replaced by a plastic box lunch which is what I’m afraid is going to happen.    
  51. How do you feel about the bad rap school lunches in general have earned? Well I try not to let it make me feel that bad because I know personally that I do the best I can with what I have to work with. I think that some of the schools deserve the bad rap and they need to change. Ours is far from perfect but like I said we do our best.
  52. How do you feel about the amount of food the children throw away uneaten? I don’t see a lot of what is thrown away we have a crew out in the cafeteria that handles the trash.
  53. How much do you think gets left uneaten, not because the child is full, but rather the child didn’t have enough time to eat it? Time is a big factor but basically kids at this age don’t use what time they have wisely and play and run around and then say I didn’t have time to finish. Our kids get 20 minutes I think they should get a little longer…  
  54. I appreciate you all of your hard work. Thank you!
  55. Do you get disrespected because of your position? Yes we do and usually by the staff not all but some treat we like we are servants or we are stupid because we didn’t go to college.
  56. Do kids even eat everything? No How repetitive are the meals? Very
  57. Are you expected to eat the food yourself? I’m not expected to eat it but I do sometimes we get one free meal a day as an employee.
  58. In my nieces’ school, grades K-8, all the kids get the same amount of food. Is your school the same way? They all get the same portion. I think that elementary does get less but not sure on that.
  59. Do you think kids like the food you serve? It’s so sad some of the kids take the food everyday and say thank you and have it eaten before they get out of line. Others act like they eat at a five star restaurant every night and are like “ewe that’s gross…” I tell them we do not need commentary on the food if you don’t like it then have your mom fix your lunch. I can promise you that isn’t gonna happen.
  60. If you had the ability to revise the current USDA guidelines, what changes would you make? (Sky’s the limit- portions, ingredients, ratios, etc.) Hmm that is interesting I think there should be less processed and fresher. Like I said earlier our breakfast had over 40 grams of sugar alone today…that wasn’t even including the juice..
  61. Do the lunch ladies have any input in contacting foodservice? Yes we have a consultant that we can contact anytime we need to. But that really does no good either because they have the higher ups to answer to also.
  62. Does your school have a policy about children being required to take all the food items offered in a lunch service? If not, why not? I ask because I’ve seen kids take only corn chips on nacho day or only white flour roll at our school and have never seen faculty or staff bat an eye. The children have to at least have three items on their tray for it to be a reimbursable meal and no more than 5. We are not real sticklers about the rules if a child wants extra milk or an extra fruit or veggie we let them have it. It’s food not heroin.
  63. On the flip side, can students in your school request a second serving of vegetable or fruit, and if not, why not? Ok at my school you can get two vegetables but not two of the same thing. Anything after that has to be paid for. My child wanted green beans with a chef’s salad and was told she only paid for 1 vegetable, meanwhile every kid in front of her took the trays with zero beans! What’s up with that?! Is this a national insanity or just a local one?! I’m not sure why at my school the salad is an entrée and the child could have still got 4 more items.
  64. I think most of us know the current state of affairs is not your fault because often you’re simply following state or federal mandates. We have a daily production report that we have to go by and if we don’t it is going to be big trouble and they will find out.
  65. Do you enjoy going to work every day? I absolutely love my job it is the best job in the world.
  66. I have no idea what it takes to be a lunch lady. What are the qualifications for the job? None…haha… a hairnet and a smile no moustaches required.
  67. Why is it so hard for schools to go to healthier alternatives, when some are the same price as the bad ones? And how come schools serve pizza and fries every day? It’s disgusting. Because that is what sells it’s all about the mighty dollar.
  68. Is it ok to call persons such as you who prepare lunches at schools a “lunch lady”? If not, what would you prefer to be called? On Jamie Oliver’s show the lunch ladies were very offended by this name and he didn’t mean it disrespectfully, neither do I. Oh please. We love being called a lunch lady. Our official title is nutrition service assistant. BORING!
  69. Can a child be denied lunch? First of all at my school no kid is EVER denied a lunch and it is the same lunch as everyone else gets. Now there was a case where we found out that a child was buying cigarettes with his lunch money. So we told his mom that we would take care of it. He ate cheese and crackers one day and from then on had his lunch money.
  70. In your dream of dreams: 
  • What would you do to change the the current food system? There would be no processed food at all.  
  • What would you do if you were in charge of the school district? There would be stricter guidelines on the free and reduced program.  
  • What would you do if you were in charge of the entire system? Tear down that big fancy central kitchen and we would start cooking again.
  1. Do you feel you’re empowered to suggest/make those changes in your school? I do but it won’t work. We are just workers they don’t listen to us. 
  2. If not, do you know who to talk to that can make the wheel start turning? I guess the Congress but I doubt that would work either. I think something like what Jamie Oliver is doing is the only thing that will help. I do know that our superintendant is not at all happy with the way our food is done where he came from they still cooked but it was already a done deal when he got here so. Guess he isn’t going to change it.  
  3. That’s already a lot of questions so I’ll just say “thank you” for taking questions from the public. Conversation is the start of change and understanding. Oh you are so welcome and I appreciate the thank you.
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32 thoughts on “Lunch Lady Q & A

  1. As well as the nature of the foods provided, an abhorrent practice is the trashing of the food. I like to be about for my sons' breakfasts and the amount of food and beverages in the trash that has been barely touched is heartbreaking…

  2. I think all the lunch ladies need to rise up and fight. Just like teachers are on the front lines of education (and are never listened to!), lunch ladies are on the front lines of nutrition and need to become a force. Viva revolution!

  3. Thank you so much for all your answers. I know I appreciate the lunch ladies at my site a lot (the work all 3 schools in district and clean my classroom in the evening) but I never know how best to say thank you. After reading these responses, I better think of something fast because they deserve a lot of gratitude. Thanks for answering.

  4. That was fantastic! It's always the people on the front lines who know what's going on, but have no input on the decision-making process. I love hearing that this lunch lady loves her job. Let's hope she gets to keep it.

  5. Thank you so much for your insight and agreeing to partake in such a lenghty Q&A. Being a KY native myself, I can certainly sympathize with you on the culture you're surrounded with. I applaud you for at least trying to make a difference and it warms my heart that you love what you do and have made an impact on some children! Keep on keepin' on and hopefully the food revolution will continue to pick up steam and you'll see changes eventually! Thanks again.

  6. My grandmother was a lunch lady in WV over 30 years ago. I always loved when she brought home leftovers (even though she wasn't supposed to). Everything was homemade and she was very proud of the elementary school cafeteria that she was in charge of. She and the other ladies that worked for her loved working and cooking together. My children do not eat the school lunches at their elementary school. Not because I won't let them, but because they don't want to. In fact, earlier in the year my 10 year old son's class had a real problem at lunchtime. The kids who regularly bought school lunches were stealing items out the lunch boxes of the kids whose parents packed their lunches. It was a really big deal. The principle even threatened to suspend a couple of boys. Even with that, the lunch food quality did not change. I wish Jamie Oliver would bring his revolution to my kids' school!

  7. Thank you so much Lunch Lady! That was wonderful and very eye-opening. I'm so happy to hear that you love your job and you love the kids. Keep up the great work. Schools need more positive people like you.

  8. Thank you Lunch Lady! It's wonderful to read about this now, before my daughter starts school. I will definitely be paying attention to what is offered at her school when she starts – and might follow your footsteps of working as a lunch lady while she's in school so I can be home when she's home!

  9. Thank you Lunch Lady! That was great, thank you for your honesty. It's obvious you really care about these kids- they're lucky to have you!

  10. This interview made me cry, and I don't even have kids! Something has to be done. I know it can be done better, but we have to face the poverty issue as well and work our way up. Thank you, Lunch Lady, and ALL the Lunch Ladies out there.

  11. Thank you Lunch Lady. Thank you for your time, the information and the service you provide (with love) to those children.

  12. Just happened upon your blog – read them all. Unbelievable. Many of the meals you show are much like my children's (although my youngest takes lunch 3 times a week) but THEY HAVE PLENTY of time to eat AND go out for their 2nd recess of the day and PE 2 times a week. I know you are anonymous but we are in Iowa and our kids are given SO much more time for physical activity. GOOD WORK! AMERICA IS GETTIN FAT FAT FAT FAT

    1. I am also a lunch lady. Just happened to see your blog while googleing if lunchladies have a UNION? I love my job! And you are right…The food served is CRAP!! I have an 8th grader..and she hates our school lunches. I feel powerless as you do. The dang gone govt. needs to butt out!

  13. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Your love for the children really shines through. I bet you make a difference in more kids lives than you know.

  14. Oh Lunch Lady thank you so much! I think your perspective was invaluable since I for one had no idea how the system works day to day for you. Since you are the "face" of the people responsible for serving our children this kind of food it is easy to assume that you have some power in the decisions and instead you are doing the best you can with the resources you have. Thanks for taking joy in your job and caring for the children:)

  15. anonymous @ 12.50


    Long, yes , but how very interesting.

    Redundant? Hoe could a Q & A from a person who works right at the frontline of what this whole blog is about be redundant?

    From one lunch lady to another – thankyou for your time and positive attitude!!!

  16. Oh man, after reading this I had to play the Lunchlady song by Adam Sandler. Great post and thank you for answering all those questions!

    All this "central processing" of school lunches still creeps me out even though I began hearing about it several months ago. Since when was it considered proper to feed children processed, microwaved crap in school? It just floors me.

    Lunch ladies of America, I salute you. 🙂

  17. Thank you. It was like reading my own answers! I too work as a lunch lady for a small school bringing over the food from a central kitchen. I smiled when I read about how you felt about your job and the children. I feel exactly the same way……never had a job I loved so much even when there are aspects I dislike.

  18. Finally got a chance to finish all the Q & A… Lunch Lady, thank you SO much for your time and the insight that you have provided about a very important part of our children's day. It's obvious that you love both your job and the children you serve! Keep up the good work!

  19. I loved reading your post. I too am a LL and have lots of similar experiences and conditions to work with. I totally agree about your comment on looking at people that get free all the time. I can't stand to see a free luncher come in and buy a 1.25 water everyday. It makes me crazy!!!!!

  20. My aunt is a lunch lady, my mom used to be a lunch lady. My mom retired in 1999 because of health issues, but when she was working the kitchen, she served thousands of students and they still managed to come up with non processed foods. I loved reading this blog, it shows how processed our lives are becoming, because of guidelines made by someone who doesn't eat this stuff. My aunt works in a smaller school district than what my mom used to and they still focus on fresher homemade type foods. I asked her how many students she serves because of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and it was approximately 420 children. And yet they still manage homemade.

  21. I can tell from your answers that you come from the same district as me, Lunch Lady, and I say major props to you because of that. Keep up the totally awesome work.

  22. I'm a Lunch Lady too-in Pennsylvania. Everything seems exactly the same here except we get to heat up our frozen food in our kitchen ourselves without a central location. The menu suggestions, more cooking, etc.-all falls on deaf ears…

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