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Where Have All the Lunch Ladies Gone?

Emily Reese, Tracey Marcum, Dolly Taylor
Emily Reese, Tracey Marcum, Dolly Taylor

In my day, we had a small ticket for hot lunches that were punched every time we walked through the lunch line. We were handed a plastic, retro-looking tray, on which our dedicated Lunch Ladies placed their home cooked Sloppy Joes. I always wanted the blue colored tray for some weird reason.

Today? The kitchens in our elementary schools are gone. Lunch programs like the ones you and I experienced no longer exist in our district. People have concerns about our food: Is it healthy? Who decides our menus? Why are they prepackaged? Where does this food come from?

Where have all the Lunch Ladies gone?

I decided to go to the source of all food service in our district, Nutrition Services Center in Sparks, to try to figure out some of these questions. What I discovered is that while a few questions still remain and keep me wondering where improvements can be made, I have a new found appreciation for the dedication of our district to feed more than 50,000 of our students, daily.

I have intentionally decided that I want to stay away from dissecting perceived shortcomings with our lunch program, and focus on what they actually accomplish on a daily basis, because these lunch ladies (and men) are very proud of what they do, and they should be.

Emily Reese, freezing cold in the giant freezer
Emily Reese, freezing cold in the giant freezer

The facility itself is ginormous. Throughout the tour, my jaw was agape as I walked through a Costco-sized freezer and took pictures of ovens the size of a tiny house being used daily to prepare each and every meal that our youth would have in front of them in the more than 90 schools each day. It was overwhelming to think of all that nutritional services accomplishes during the week, let alone in one day.

I believe the few phrases I used the most were: whoa, holy crap, and unbelievable.

The energy from Director Tracey Marcum of Aramark and Kitchen Manager Dolly Taylor was infectious, and they were truly glad that someone was genuinely interested in finding out the details about what is accomplished at their facility. Their passion for feeding the students of Washoe County was evident, and it made me realize that the Lunch Ladies had not gone away; they had simply updated with the times.

My first negative shock, however, was their crowded work spaces in the administrative areas. After asking about their facility needs, Tracey stated that with additional funding, the planned expansion of Nutrition Services could be completed. Toward the end of the tour, I saw the worst need: those who worked and managed the floor had to share a space, not much bigger than a closet, with six total desk areas in it for clerical work. It appears that passing the upcoming bond issue for construction, repairs and expansion would also impact Nutrition Services in a positive way.

Conversely, these office spaces paled in comparison to the main, open work space, where meals were prepared. One common misperception that was clarified to me, is that very few food items actually come prepackaged from somewhere else. Each and everyday, starting before dawn, the cooks come in, prepare the food from scratch, then portion and seal the items. The reason for the prepackaged look is due to health codes while transporting the breakfasts, lunches and snacks to the schools, many to be heated up for serving.

While this makes sense, I was thankful to know that most of the food our children eat, regardless of opinion of what constitutes healthy choices, was being prepared each and every day by individuals who took pride in what they were accomplishing.

Unbeknownst to many people in our county, Nutritional Services also does a lot of juggling with different food related tasks. The following is but a glance of what they do:

  1. They offer catering throughout the school district, like administrative meetings, PFA’s and special occasions. They don’t look to make a profit off of it; they use it as a source of PR and to be a collaborative District partner. Michael Perkins does an impressive job with menu choices.
  2. They team up, funds permitting, with various local farms (like Lattin Farms) to provide a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to students, especially at the elementary level.
  3. They offer a program for babies and young children of teen parents in the district with food, formula and various care needs.
  4. They make special, non-contaminated accommodations for students with allergies and dietary restrictions, daily.
  5. They partner with the Food Bank of Northern Nevada to keep down costs and allow the local economy to benefit from the purchase of supplies.
  6. They provide the main support for special snack, breakfast and head-start programs for all of the eligible schools.
  7. They are getting ready to roll out their food trucks for high schools with off campus options, where students who want to leave campus can still take advantage of the free and reduced lunch programs they are eligible for. The name of the first food truck is Washoe Noshery, which is clever.
Samples of hot lunch food
Samples of hot lunch food

What I found the most encouraging during my tour, was the willingness of Tracey Marcum, Dolly Taylor, and General Manager Sierra Combs to be transparent and honest with my questions. While they were adamant that their meals were on par with Federal Guidelines, which they are strictly required to be in order to receive the Federal subsidies that benefit the district, they were honest that if more funds were available, the choices in food options would be greater for the students.

Also, choosing local produce and supplies isn’t always within their control. “It’s not like we don’t want [the district] to pick local,” mentioned Dolly. “They just have to do their negotiating out in the open.” The district must ask for bids and choose options according to the lowest amount they can spend. If the district had more money to spend, desirable options would be viable.

Food prep area
Food prep area

If I could paint you a complete picture of all that I saw on my tour, this written piece would likely be too long. I have never seen such giant sieves for pasta, cauldrons for making their mashed potatoes, or ovens that they use to bake their whole grain cookies. I kept picturing something breaking or going wrong during production, to the point that food would not get out to our precious students. They related a couple of instances that would have caused complete chaos at our schools, but with each one, they managed to problem solve and keep emergencies from affecting our students.

For that, I thank them. I also declare that if there were a zombie apocalypse, I know where I would go for shelter: WCSD Nutritional Services.

At the conclusion of the tour, I was allowed to sit and ask Tracey, Dolly and Sierra a couple of questions that truly needed to be asked. What about food waste? What about recycling?

What I appreciated was their candor. I was left with some unanswered questions, but not because of their desire to cover anything up. It really was about the Beast that I often call Education. It is not as simple as saying that the district or Aramark is calling all the shots.

Ultimately it comes down to Federal Regulations and Nevada Revised Statutes dictating what can be bought, spent and decided upon.

Here are the answers to the following questions I asked:

1) There is a lot of waste of food after a lunch is over. Why is that and what can be done about it?

“As far as waste coming out of this building, there is next to none. If there is usable food, like milk, Model Dairy will take that back and give it to the Food Bank. Cost is a major factor, so I am always looking at waste, since that’s money out of [the District’s] pocket. It’s like chopping up $20 bills over the trashcan.” The waste that actually comes back to Nutrition Services has been cut by 50% since Aramark took over a few years ago, which is down now to about 2-3%. Tracey discussed training the food managers at each school to carefully count and project the amount of food needed so that “the first student and the last student will get the same amount.” Unfortunately, hot items will produce waste because it cannot be reused. Most food items at the elementary level are cooked at the Nutritional Services Center and then reheated at the school. After it is reheated once, it cannot be used again.

The only items that can be reused are prepackaged food that is shelf stable, which is two items: graham crackers and snack bears. Everything else is temperature controlled.

Any options to be able to use leftover food must come from an outside source, with the approval of the Health Department and Department of Agriculture. Some of these options could include feed for livestock and compost. However, Aramark and the district has “zero labor to do that.” Viable options, which appear logistically difficult, certainly are something of which Nutritional Services are in favor.

Perhaps the biggest reason of waste is the enforcement of Federal rules, which requires each student to take three components out of the five offered. If not consumed, it gets thrown in the trash. Unfortunately, “there’s no way around the waste,” Tracey said.

2) There is a lot of material that could be recycled after meals are consumed. Why isn’t this a part of Aramark’s policy and how could it be implemented?

In essence, the principles behind the first question and answers were the same. Aramark and the district do not currently have the funds or personnel to be able to spearhead a recycling program. There are health code issues with food being stuck to the food cartons, as well as the problem with making sure sorting is done properly while students place items in designated bins. Tracey was definitely in favor of a recycling program, but again, it would have to come from an outside source. There simply is no way the district can provide the support for something of that nature at this time. Aramark and the District have been discussing waste and recycling efforts and will continue to work toward a solution.

Bummer. Any takers?

The catalyst behind my visit to Nutrition Services was to see if there were any viable options for improving our lunches to organic, healthier meals for students in our district. Ultimately, I didn’t see much that could be done without changing the Beast of Education at the Federal level. I also didn’t find what I wanted as far as options for giving leftover food to those in need in our community, like the homeless. My journey toward serving our district as a Board of Trustee member will hopefully begin in November and afford me the opportunity to make the most optimal decisions for our students in everything, including their health; however, I know that I cannot begin to make any pragmatic decisions without going to the sources and learning everything I can firsthand. In the future, as solutions and improvements present themselves, I know that I will be able to make informed recommendations for our district. I am thankful for the opportunity to see the well-oiled machine that feeds nearly 50,000 students a day.

Keep in mind that you can also go and see it for yourself. Tracey, Dolly and Sierra always welcome anyone from the community to go through Nutrition Services for a tour. I highly recommend it because it is quite amazing.

If you are looking to give some of your personal feedback about school lunches, the Nevada Department of Agriculture has a survey available for you to take. You can click on this link to complete it: NDA School Lunch Survey.

Kudos to those who make up the backbone of our infrastructure. The most inspiring people in our district are the ones taking care of our students in the trenches, and the Lunch Ladies are happy to be serving.

Thank you, Lunch Ladies! I’m glad you’re still around!

For more information about Washoe County School District Nutritional Services, go to http://www.washoeschools.net/Domain/69

emily reeseEmily Reese is the mother of three amazing children, all students in the Washoe County School District. She is a teacher at Rainshadow Community Charter High School, a WCSD sponsored charter school, serving an at-risk population of WCSD students to help them toward graduation. Emily’s life has given her precious opportunity to practice her communication skills. Through her experiences with colon cancer and her unique family situation, she has been able to be transparent about her life through writing and speaking. Emily is running for WCSD Board of Trustees District D. You can view her campaign website here.


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