The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 3, 2012

Mike Pound: School nutrition workers, like musicians, know their licks

By Mike Pound

— When Elizabeth LaTurner tells people what she does for a living, she knows the mental picture that comes to their minds.

Elizabeth knows that the people are picturing a gruff older woman in a hairnet slopping out some sort of mystery meat onto a cowering child’s tray.

It’s unfair, of course, but thanks mainly to Hollywood, that’s the image that many folks conjure up when they think of school cafeteria workers.

“And that’s what it will always be, and it doesn’t bother me,” Elizabeth said.

But there is a difference between acknowledging a stereotype and accepting a stereotype. Elizabeth does draw a distinction between the two.

“I know it will always be there for some people, but my job is to try and change that,” she said.

Elizabeth is the food service director for the Riverton (Kan.) School District. That means she is in charge of seeing that the school district’s 800-plus students get a healthy — and hopefully tasty — breakfast and lunch.

It’s a tall order, a challenge that Elizabeth not only accepts but embraces.

“It’s a rewarding job, when done correctly,” she said.

Elizabeth called me to let me know that next week is School Nutrition Employee Week. She thought it would be nice if not only the eight dedicated employees who make up her staff, but also the thousands of dedicated school kitchen workers across the nation, could get a little recognition. A written pat on the back, as it were.

I told Elizabeth that I could probably do that. As the parent of a 14-year-old daughter, I know how difficult it is to put something on the table that she will eat without rolling her eyes. I can’t imagine having to feed hundreds and hundreds of kids every day. But that’s what school cafeteria workers do. And they try to do it with smiles on their faces.

By the way, a couple of times as I have been writing this, I have been tempted to type the phrase “school lunchroom worker.” But that phrase is no longer accurate. Most schools now also offer a breakfast program, and some are even offering late afternoon or early evening meals.

Elizabeth said the added meals are one of the ways that school food service programs have changed since her school-age days. School cafeterias have, over the years, been asked to do things that they didn’t or couldn’t do a generation ago. In some case, school cafeterias have become the sole source for a healthy, home-style meal for students.

It’s not a pleasant thought, but it is, as they say, what it is.

“It’s different now,” Elizabeth said. “Mom and dad both work, and when they get home they’re tired, so they pick up fast food. When I was a child, I came home to a sit-down dinner every night.”

In August, Elizabeth said, school cafeterias will be required through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to further step up their efforts to provide healthy menus for students. The federal legislation, passed in 2010, will require schools to offer more fresh fruits and vegetables to students than they do now, a move that Elizabeth supports.

Elizabeth said school food service workers must undergo extensive training and, with ever changing school schedules, often must learn to adjust menus and recipes on the fly.

“You get home, and you can’t wait to kick your shoes off,” she said. “You’re tired, but it’s a good sort of tired because you know that you did something good for the kids.”

I think that’s something.