Osseo District 279 Lunch Ladies Share Their Experience with Feeding Lots of Kids

What really goes on in the school kitchen.

“Mom, why don’t you ever buy Brussels sprouts?” a boy asks as they shop in the produce department.

“Where did you ever hear of Brussels sprouts?” his mother asks, surprised.

The answer: “At lunch.” In the school lunchrooms of District 297, “vegetables” is the word, and has been for three years. Every school introduced new ways to make vegetables not only tolerated, but requested. Though every school in the district experimented with serving vegetables, it’s the “lunchroom ladies” (and men) who do the work, make the food attractive, and care about the kids who make this initiative effective. They cheerfully feed our kids. Let’s meet some of them.

Osseo Middle School

This middle school serves about 880 sixth to eighth graders, one grade at a time. The staff rotate jobs so everyone knows how to do all tasks—from wiping down tables to preparing a main course—and no one gets stuck with the same job every day.

“We’re really a team,” says nutrition manager Pam Helmer. She and two of her workers, Karen Francis and Allyson Spotts, team up to talk about their lunchroom. Everything, whether baked goods or the main dishes, has to be in the ovens by 10:35 a.m. Salads need to be prepared for the salad bar. By the time the students come, tired from their morning classes, everything must be ready.

“We act goofy, so they’ll smile,” Helmer says. Who knew they’d smile for vegetables? In the 2014-15 school year, each District 279 kitchen crew experimented with vegetable recipes to discover what children liked. Each school did taste tests and shared the recipes.

Osseo Middle School hosted a farmers market for their taste test. They had an assortment of vegetables such as carrots with the greens still on, corn and kale. Three dips, dill, Southwest, and sun-dried tomato hummus, were available for dipping. Some lunchroom staff dressed in costumes—as a pea-pod, carrot or baby tomato. An art class created an 8-foot-tall cardboard asparagus for the occasion. Sun-dried tomato hummus won as the most popular dip.

Once a month, a DJ plays music. After they eat, kids can dance. Mr. Chance, the principal, sometimes sings, “You are My Sunshine,” horribly. He has a gift for comedic timing. Osseo Middle School fits a lot into their lunchtime.

Fernbrook Elementary

The Fernbrook students’ favorites include popcorn chicken, chicken strips and Brunch for Lunch (sausage and French toast). Lynda Henderscheid, Fernbrook’s kitchen manager, chooses chicken fajitas as her favorite.

Henderscheid arrives every morning by 5:30 a.m. ready to meet the challenges of the day. She unlocks the doors, turns on the oven, considers what needs to be baked, what needs to be pulled from the freezer and moved to the refrigerator for the next day. There’s no time to waste. Between 500 and 600 children need to be fed.

Later, an assistant manager, two nutrition assistants, and a cashier will join her. If someone is missing, perhaps there will be a sub. If not, they serve on paper plates.

Henderscheid chooses her week’s menu from set recipes the district uses that follow nutritional guidelines. But the salad bar for teachers can contain anything she wants.

Maria Kowalzek arrives at 9:30 a.m. She starts by cutting up fruits and veggies for the salad bar or getting soup ready. Around 10 a.m., she starts getting lunch ready for the day, preparing hamburgers, pizzas and sandwiches. Some days can be tedious. Others, like taco day, are crazy.

At 11:45 a.m. students begin flooding in, one grade at a time. Two people serve; one person puts out more food as needed, one is the dishwasher, and one is the cashier.

“I love serving just because I love working with kids,” Kowalzek says. Last year, one of her daughters was in third grade, always the last class scheduled to eat.

“I sometimes like to be crazy and wear a costume. That embarrasses my daughter, so I always hurried to get out of costume before the third graders came,” she says.

“One time I wore a hot dog costume when we were serving hot dogs. It made me happy to see the kids’ faces. On ‘Crazy Hair Day’ I came as a plate of spaghetti. I poked lots of holes in a paper plate. Then I pulled my hair through the holes.”

Maple Grove Senior High

Maple Grove Senior High is big, serving 2,300 kids with four lunch periods. Nutrition manager Cathy Ely oversees a staff of nineteen. Ely arrives at 5:30 a.m. The baker arrives at 5:45 a.m. The main dish is started at 6:15 a.m. At least four people work on produce. There are many serving bars: Main Event: one or two entrees; Grill Line: chicken and hamburgers; Grab and Go: five salads, deli and PB & J sandwiches, a vegetable parfait and Variety Bar: anything from salad to yogurt parfaits, baked potatoes to mac and cheese.

Food service assistant Janice Brinkman has worked at the high school for six years. She’s taken classes in person and on-line, but says that most of her learning is “train as you go.”

Brinkman enjoys the variety of rotating through 12 different jobs. Every other week she works in the bakery. Maple Grove is one of the few districts that still does its own baking. Her favorite is the grill. “I like the mechanics of it,” she says. “Usually we serve 400 to 500 hamburgers per day and 40 to 50 grilled chicken breasts. The kitchen is non-stop.”

Her favorite meal is Brunch for Lunch. The students like popcorn chicken, Brunch for Lunch, taco salad and chicken tenders.

Maranatha Christian Academy

Maranatha teaches children from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, serving 200 meals a day: a hot lunch, soup and a salad bar. Traci Larsen began working there as a sub in 2007. Within six months, she was the director. Her assistants include a chef, Samara Schmidt and Shelly Theim.

Larson arrives at 6 a.m. to prep for breakfast—a pastry, yogurt, an egg sandwich or pancakes with sausage—which she serves from 7-8 a.m. The chef comes in during that time. Schmidt and Theim arrive at 9:50 a.m. to place the a la carte items, sauces, ketchup bottles—anything needed for lunch.

The lunch line is active by 10:40 a.m. Schmidt’s favorite meal to serve is pasta, with or without meat. When the children give their request, she uses a funny French accent (though she’s not French) as she dishes up their plates, saying, “No meat for you” or “Meat for you.” This keeps the kids laughing.

“I like the students,” she says. “When I comment that one of them has a new haircut, they light up. If I’m at the register, I ask about their day. They give me a hug. One year when the ninth graders were studying Shakespeare they named me, ‘Lady Lunch.’ Some still call me that.”

(Ava Ohnstad prepares fresh salad at Osseo Middle School.)