Smelling of bacon, buttery biscuits and all things right with the world, the cafeteria is a bright, cheerful space, with windows on three sides and student art adorning the walls. While other areas of Fairyland are designed to encourage thought, creativity and collaboration, the cafeteria is a respite from the day’s trials and tribulations, a room that refuels and re-energizes its visitors, and like the human heart, pumps life into those who enter. Unlike the rather bland fare of generic “school lunches,” the Fairyland School cafeteria provides delicious, homemade meals that are prepared with attention to detail, a devout adherence to strict dietary standards and served with a nurturing kindness that is not typical of institutional food service.
Behind the scenes of the Fairyland School breakfast and lunch program is a stellar team, made of three highly professional, dedicated, hardworking individuals: David Myers, Susan Foster and Diana Kilgore. Considering the scope of their service, it’s hard to conceive that a mere three people are able to manage the preparation of two daily meals (breakfast and lunch) that are consistently appealing to children, varied and nutritious for up to 278 students. Not only that, Susan, Diana and David also oversee the care, cleanliness and operation of the entire kitchen facility and its many appliances and moving parts, all the while following a stringent set of federal dietary and sanitation regulations. And, most impressive of all, they accomplish these duties with the efficiency, precision and synergy of a surgical team and the warmth and hospitality of a weekend at Nana’s.
Like all public school systems, the Walker County Department of Education enforces the USDA’s recently updated nutrition guidelines for school meals, referred to as “MyPlate Guide to School Lunch and School Breakfast.” In accordance with these new guidelines, all school breakfasts and lunches must consist of one cup of fruit, one cup of vegetables, one serving of grains, one serving of protein and one serving of dairy. Equally rigorous are the government imposed sanitation regulations. For example, the temperatures of the various food storage items, such as steamers and ice wells, are monitored several times a day to make sure they are at the proper temperature to protect against foodborne illnesses. The steamers, heated pass-throughs and bun warmers must be maintained at a temperature of at least 165 degrees, and the refrigerated pass-throughs and ice wells on the line must be at least 40-45 degrees to prevent spoilage and bacteria.
Susan, Diana, David wash their hands frequently and at regulated intervals and wear hairnets and gloves, which are changed often. In cleaning the kitchen and its contents, all pots, pans and serving pieces must be washed in the dishwasher. Furthermore, after being washed and rinsed, these items, as well as all surfaces, including the dishwasher itself, the counters, the sinks, the stationary appliances, the floor and all components of the cafeteria line must be rinsed in a water-based sanitary solution which is strip-tested for its chemical accuracy and changed twice a day. To optimize hygiene and cleanliness, the kitchen itself, a separate room behind the line, is off limits to everyone except the team and the custodial staff, and all its doors are locked when Susan, Diana, David are not present.
With 21 years of combined work experience in food service, the Fairyland cafeteria team of three is a well oiled machine, and to be sure that the students receive meals that are healthy, according to standards, and on time, Diana, Susan and David must follow a precise daily protocol.
Waking up as early as 3:45 a.m. to travel from their homes near and far (Fort Oglethorpe, La Fayette and Chickamauga), they are among the first to arrive at Fairyland School between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. each morning. Upon arrival, with over an hour until breakfast, the first order of business is to turn on the many kitchen appliances, specifically the ovens, bun warmer, dishwasher, skillet, tilt skillet and several pass-throughs (easily accessible warming or refrigerated shelves located between kitchen and cafeteria line). Due to their fastidious planning and foresight, the trio is always operating at least one to several days ahead of schedule, having completed the majority of the food preparation for the current day’s meals in advance. Working ahead of schedule makes for a less hurried schedule and ensures the team that upcoming meals will be served without shortages, delays or similar unforeseen problems.
Next, on “the line” where the food will be plated and served, they must fill the wells with ice for storage of cold food items and fill the steamers with hot water for storage of hot food items. Then, between 7:30-8 a.m., roughly 90 to 130 hungry and often sleepy students arrive in search of a hearty meal. According to Susan, the most popular breakfast entrees are sausage biscuits, Pop Tarts and cereal. Other breakfast choices are waffles, pancakes, bagels, yogurt parfait, Canadian bacon and cheese or egg and cheese croissants, cinnamon toast, and chicken biscuits. All breakfast entrees are served with fresh fruit, 100 percent fruit juice and three choices of milk. Meanwhile, back in the homerooms, students choose one of the two lunch entrees posted on the monthly menu. Their selections are tallied and delivered to the cafeteria by 8:15 a.m. so the team can plan accordingly for the lunch meal.
After cleaning off breakfast pans and leftovers, the crew makes final lunch preparations, simultaneously planning and prepping for future meals, such as cutting vegetables for soups or making sauces. It is important to point out that while Susan, Diana and David each have distinct tasks and chores and assignments to complete, they operate as one, coordinating their efforts and working in unison. It is clear that they are a very strong, synchronized team who share a mutual fondness and respect for each other and see the operation of the cafeteria as a shared responsibility.
Relevant to this, the team and cafeteria program at Fairyland coordinates with and is supported by the cafeteria program at Ridgeland High School, also a Walker County school. While all Walker County meals are made on school premises, with a larger facility and staff, some items (such as several soups, chili and spaghetti sauce) are more easily prepared at Ridgeland and then delivered to Fairyland. Additionally, the Ridgeland staff manages the purchase of miscellaneous food items and ingredient needs from local food distributors such as Gordon Distributors and USDA as well as milk (and occasionally ice cream), which they order from Mayfield Dairy. An interesting bit of data regarding milk consumption at Fairyland School is that a typical weekly order from Mayfield consists of 100 cartons of skim milk, 250 cartons of one percent milk and a whopping 800 cartons of chocolate milk!
Starting at 10:30 a.m., with the exactitude of a Swiss watch, the daily lunch process begins whereby approximately 150-200 Fairyland students purchase a midday meal. Organized by homeroom, 15 groups come to the cafeteria at staggered intervals and are warmly greeted by David, Susan, or Diana, and gently but efficiently nudged down the line as they select their food items, pay and sit down to eat. According to Susan, the most popular lunch entrees are chicken nuggets, pizza and the “country meal.” Also known as “Cracker Barrel” lunch, the country meal entree is a veritable feast consisting of macaroni and cheese, pinto beans or black-eyed peas, okra, coleslaw, corn bread, fresh fruit, a milk choice AND ice cream! Other lunches on the menu are lasagna, barbecued pork, chicken on a whole grain bun, nachos, hotdogs with chili, cheeseburger on a whole-grain bun, sliced pork with gravy, quesadilla, and tacos. Lunch side dishes include such items as steamed or raw vegetables, salad, sweet potato or potato fries, fresh fruit and a choice of milk.
By 12:30 p.m., the students are back in the classrooms and the finely tuned clean up process begins. The components of the line are broken down, leftover food is refrigerated or frozen and pots and pans, serving utensils, countertops and floors are washed and sanitized. Pausing briefly to enjoy lunch themselves, the conversation immediately turns to upcoming meals as the trio is already on to the next day as they prioritize and divide a list of tasks to be completed.
At precisely 2 p.m., the doors to the kitchen are locked, the tables are clean, and the benches are up. The Fairyland School cafeteria is quiet and still. Passing by, some claim to hear the far away sound of a heartbeat. But it’s probably just their imagination.