Lunch ladies of Stephen Bell Elementary: More than just food workers
Renee Wilde traveled to the Stephen Bell Elementary school in Bellbrook at lunch time to talk to the cafeteria staff who the students, and parents, call "Lunch Heroes."
RENEE WILDE: It’s lunch time when I arrive at the Stephen Bell Elementary School.
Cafeteria workers are quickly wiping down tables and cleaning baby carrots off the floor from the previous classes before the last round of students come in to eat.
ROCHELLE DAVIS: My name is Rochelle Davis.
WILDE: And how long have you worked here?
ROCHELLE: 20 years.
SHARON ORBASH: I’m Sharon Orbash and I’ve worked here 16 years.
ANGIE MASON: I’m Angie Mason and I’ve been here a year and two months.
WILDE: Rochelle, Sharon, and Angie are three of the five cafeteria workers who serve up nutritious lunches to these young students.
The three women started working in the school cafeteria for basically the same reason. The job allowed them to work while their kids were in school, and be home when they got off.
And also to have the summers off.
How does your day work here?
ROCHELLE: We come in, we get out counts and Sharon and I get the lunches together in the morning, figure out what fruits we’re putting out and then get everything set up.
And once the kids come in it’s game on.
WILDE: The food is no longer made on-site, so there are no giant industrial mixers churning out mashed potatoes or pots of water boiling away on commercial stoves.
And instead of boring white uniforms and hair nets, the women wear bright purple t-shirts that match the school colors and striped aprons.
Today’s lunch options include a pre-bagged meal called fun on the run that’s really popular with the younger kids.
Ok, so what’s in the bag?
ROCHELLE: Fun-on-the-run consists of a yogurt, a string cheese, and they’ll get a pretzel which is over there being kept warm, and then they’ll get a vegetable or side of fruit.
And over on the other side they have the option of a chicken patty, and then a sunbutter and jelly. We got rid of peanut butter last year.
WILDE: Ok, here comes the chaos. I’ll try to stay out of your way!
The three women spread out as second graders pour into the school cafeteria.
Rochelle works the cash register where children line up on either side of her to pay for their lunches, milk and snacks.
The kids use a keypad to type in their student ID numbers, and when their pre-paid accounts pop up on the touchscreen, Rochelle deducts the items from their accounts.
(SCANNER CHECKING OUT)
After paying, the students who bought lunches funnel over to either Angie who is serving the chicken patties and sunbutter sandwiches, or Sharon who is passing out the fun-on-the-run-bags.
SHARON: I love these ages. This school is kindergarten through second grade, so they are all really little. The kindergarteners are really cute.
We love to watch them grow, as well, in their own ways.
WILDE: As they come through Sharon’s line she reminds the second graders to say please and thank you.
SHARON: I won’t let them get away with a ‘no, or a nah, or yeah, or yuck’. (laughs)
WILDE: When the pandemic caused the schools to shut down in 2020, these ladies truly became lunch heroes.
ROCHELLE: What we first did was we passed out all the food that was going to perish in the district.
And we passed all of that out prior to doing lunches, because we had no idea what was going on.
None of us knew what was going on.
WILDE: When it became obvious that the shut down was going to last longer than two weeks the district organized pandemic meals for students who were now stuck at home.
SHARON: So there were five of us in here every single day making food, packing bags of food.
Every child, ages 0 - 18, that live in the community were eligible to get a free breakfast and lunch on a daily basis.
So we would pack up breakfast in one bag and lunch in another and people would drive in and have their names on their cars and we knew how many lunches to put in each car.
ROCHELLE: They would pop their trunk or open a side door because you weren’t allowed to….
SHARON: Be near people.
WILDE: After serving around 600 students coming through the school parking lot, Rochelle and Sharon would pack food up in a van and drive out to serve another 200 students who were housebound.
Sharon reads some of the letters and cards they’ve saved from the students during that time.
SHARON: ‘I can’t believe that you bring lunches everyday, even when it is hot and not good weather, like when it is raining and cold. This is my favorite lunch.’
And then she drew a picture of a cheeseburger, with the lettuce and tomatoes on it.
(MUSIC CLIP FADE UNDER)
WILDE: Are you going to miss it when you retire?
ROCHELLE: I’m never going to retire. I’m a lunch lady. I’ve got to do this till I die. (laughs)
On my deathbed I’ll be like, ‘Wait a minute, I got to go into work!’’
(MUSIC FADE UP)
WILDE: For WYSO’s Everyday People, I’m Renee Wilde
If you know someone that does a job that we should know more about, send an email to our producer Renee Wilde at firstname.lastname@example.org.