MT. PLEASANT — By 7:45 a.m. each school day, the Mt. Pleasant High School kitchen is already bustling with activity. A crew of about 20 women and two drivers are tasked with feeding the students and faculty of the district every day, preparing and cooking an average of 350 breakfasts and 1,450 lunches.
The kitchen is tucked into a corner on the east end of the building. Mornings are especially hectic because not all schools in the district are equipped with a kitchen, meaning most meals are prepared at the high school and then driven out to the students at their respective lunch times.
Even from outside the door marked “FOOD SERVICE,” the clanging of metal on metal can be heard. Pots and pans are always being moved around — on tables, through industrial-sized ovens, into freezers. The room is a hodgepodge of smells as cookies, salads and teriyaki chicken are being made in the same space.
Sonya Walls, a food service employee who has been working at the district for five years, is in charge of preparing the fruit selections for all buildings and Van Allen Elementary School’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable snack, as well as serving lunch at Lincoln Elementary. She, along with all the other women helping to prepare food, moves around the kitchen with ease, her curly hair pulled back in a hairnet and apron tied securely around her waist.
On Monday of this week, the students of Mt. Pleasant Community School District were having applesauce cups. Walls began her day by counting off boxes of the fruit puree in the storage area of the kitchen to make sure enough was sent to each school.
“Since it’s cups, it’s pretty quick, an easier day,” she said.
From there, she prepared the fruit dish for the high school. At her station in the middle of the right side of the kitchen, she used her automatic can opener to pry the lids off large cans of applesauce and pour their contents into salad bar bins. Walls is incredibly efficient, a luxury that comes with familiarity; she knows where every container and every food item is in the kitchen and it takes her less than a minute to get through several cans.
“I wish I had this can opener at home,” she said.
Only the high school and middle school require the bins; none of the other schools have salad bars, Walls explained. Once the bins were filled, she placed them into the serving area and covered them with plastic lids that would be removed as lunch time rolled around.
Several students make their way through to grab breakfast as Walls puts the bins down. They punch in their ID numbers after grabbing their food items. Walls explained accounts are all electronic and parents get an email when funds begin to run low. Walls’ own daughter and an exchange student from Spain that her family is hosting, also attend the high school. She received an email that morning alerting her of low funds in one of the accounts and made sure to send a check in to school that day.
After the daily fruit for each building is taken care of, Walls turned her attention to Van Allen’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable snack. Each day, students at the elementary school get a serving of either a fruit or a vegetable, funded in part by a federal grant program awarded to schools with at least 50% of its students on free and reduced lunch status.
On Walls’ station are two calendars, one that lists the daily lunch menu and another listing the snack for Van Allen. She pointed out some of the items they’ve served so far this month including jicama and sweet potatoes.
“It was funny because when we were serving some of the kids, you could hear them ask ‘What is this?’ Some of them probably don’t get these fruits and vegetables at home,” she said.
Walls knows exactly what is and is not a hit with the students.
“Strawberries are probably their favorite, but they’re really messy to prepare,” she said with a laugh. The unique fruits are sometimes harder to get kids to eat, but Walls said she feels introducing the foods to them and getting students familiarized with them will only help them be more receptive to new things in the future.
“I think it’s important for schools to provide this to students,” she added.
She usually works a day ahead with Van Allen and prepared fresh grapes that would be served on Tuesday. She pulled two boxes from the large freezer in the back of the kitchen before plugging her sink and filling it with water to wash the fruit.
As Walls was working, other cooks around her took care of their respective responsibilities at their work stations. Like Walls, each person is in charge of either a certain item or serving one of the schools. A team of two cooked the main meal of the day. Across the way, a tray of cookies was being prepared for baking. Several other workers were gathering platters that would go into portable heaters and driven to the other schools.
It’s a smooth, well-oiled machine.
“We work well as a team,” Walls said.
But it doesn’t come without hiccups. Walls recalls times when they’ve run out of certain items and have had to make different meals last minute, or run out of trays for students, but nothing the team couldn’t handle.
“We just figure it out. If we have to, we’ll serve sandwiches, just to make sure we have lunches for the kids,” she said about what they would do should a worst-case-scenario problem pop up.
On that particular Monday, the new challenge facing the food service staff was teriyaki chicken lo mein, a new dish for the district. As the noodles cooked, it became clear it would be a difficult dish to serve. They stuck to the large metal bowls they were being cooked in and there was a scramble to find tongs that would be used to serve them.
“It’s a little trial and error when we try something new. Usually we serve the chicken with rice, but we’re trying noodles today. We’ll see how the kids like it today,” Walls said as she continued to bag grapes, carefully spooned to make sure each student gets the right serving.
With state regulations on serving sizes and calorie counts, Walls carries several sheets of paper and a small pad of Post-it notes near her to keep track of everything. In addition to making sure each school gets the meals they request (and ten extra for any unaccounted students), each serving is carefully made to meet nutritional requirements.
“Each student has to get either a serving of a fruit or vegetable each day, they have to have the option,” she said. The school also has to offer at least two orange vegetables a week, which usually end up being either carrots or sweet potatoes.
Walls finished with the grapes and her fruit duties by 9:45 a.m., which left her time to help others as they prepared boxes of food to be sent off and served to students. She helped portion out pieces of broccoli for students at Wisdom Quest and Christamore House and counted out ranch packets that accompany the vegetable. As the clock ticked closer to 10:25 a.m., Walls began loading up her own food heater with the chicken and noodles to serve at Lincoln. John Robbins, Walls driver, met her at the food service door with his truck’s tail lift ready to lift the various boxes filled with food and trays.
Robbins dropped Walls off at the entrance closest to the school gym, where lunch is served. Students’ eyes perk up at the sight of the truck and the smell of hot food. As Walls wheeled in the heater, Artie Ingwersen, a part-time food service employee, met her inside, where students are still participating in gym class.
“We have to wait,” Walls said.
Once most of the P.E. students file out of the area, tables and chairs are pulled from the walls to transform the gym into a cafeteria. Walls and Ingwersen set up their station quickly, placing milk and trays closer to the edge of the serving tables for the younger kids who come in first.
“You can’t have them too far back because otherwise they can’t reach,” Ingwersen explained.
The first students filed in and Walls attempted to serve both the chicken and the noodles together, but wrangling with the sticky noodles held up the line. The pair generally try to get students through as quickly as possible, spending no more than ten minutes waiting for their food.
So instead, Walls switched to chicken and broccoli as Ingwersen deals with portioning out the noodles.
“What is that?” one student asked, as they watched Ingwersen grasp at the yellow strings with tongs.
The flow quickly smoothed out once the noodles were sorted. Trays quickly hit the serving tables and a chorus of “no broccoli, please” and “thank you” rushed from students’ mouths. Many students smiled at Walls and Ingwersen, who they see everyday.
“They recognize me if we’re out in public. Sometimes they call me ‘teacher’ because they don’t know better,” Walls said. Before working in food service, Walls was a preschool teacher.
“I have a background in education. This job is great because it works with school hours. I get off at 1:45 p.m. so I get that time with my kids,” she said.
Her familiarity with the students is most evident after they’ve all been served and she’s watching them eat, taking in whether they like the noodles or not. Students have a required five minutes of silence once they are all seated to make sure they dedicate time to actually eating. Many are picking at their noodles with their fingers, holding up the pasta or hanging the food from their noses. Once an alarm rings, signaling the end of the silent period, a cheer rings out.
“They seemed to have a lot of interest. They were talking about it, so hopefully they eat it,” she said.
The noodles don’t seem to take with the kids, Walls remarks as she clears the tables. Much of it seemed to end up in the trash cans by the door as the students exited the cafeteria. The food service workers will have to find a way to make the meal less cumbersome to cook and serve as well as entice students to eat it.
“They liked the chicken though,” she said, as she loaded the heater back into Robbins’ car.
When Walls gets back to the kitchen, all she has left to do is clean up and wash dishes.
“The morning is usually the most crazy, in the afternoon, we all just clean and wash and prep for the next day,” she said, “Then it begins all over the next morning.”