Working for Smiles: A Day-in-Life Look at Sumter District School’s ‘Lunch Heroes’ and Changes Amid COVID-19


Much has been said about the changes in K-12 classrooms during the pandemic, but what about the changes and the “new normal” for school catering workers?

Since Friday, May 7 is National School Lunch Heroes Day across the United States, The Sumter Item spoke to some of the Sumter School District’s top food designers this week to get a feel for the work. and capture all the changes that have occurred over the past 15 months with food preparation in the COVID-19 era.

The biggest change in breakfast and lunch preparation in the wake of the pandemic, according to Stacey Francis, district food services manager, and others has been prepackaging all items rather than placing food on trays as we all remember them around the world before COVID-19. Meals are always cooked from scratch, she said.

Francis has worked in the district food service from the start for 26 years. She says she started her career in 1995 as a substitute employee in the cafeteria. Then Francis was a full-time cashier and later became a school cafeteria director. Then she was one of two district field supervisors, working with many school cafeterias, before taking up the post of principal about a year ago.

And “what a year this has been,” she said.

Schools statewide had about 48 hours to completely change their operations when Governor Henry McMaster by order in council closed all schools for students with the initial spread of the coronavirus in mid-March 2020. Still, Francis noted , schools had to feed the students.

Food service staff across the district had to change and adapt quickly to pack separate meals and take-out boxes for distribution of meals to families outside of schools.

There were some cast changes and then other changes, Francis said.

The job was tough, somewhat exhausting, and required multiple tasks, but food service workers still kept their standard six-hour workday and did all the work, she said.

“They are superheroes with all the tweaks they’ve made,” Francis said. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. The team at each school is a great bunch of people. I appreciate them, and they really are the superheroes this year with all the changes we’ve had to implement, lots of last minute times. But the staff have always been accommodating and dedicated to the kids. “


All meals provided by the district must comply with USDA guidelines and state regulations, according to District Field Supervisor Juanita Green. She worked for 38 years in food service at Sumter Public Schools.

This means that pizza – a staple with kids – is made from wholegrain bread with low-fat cheese. The fries – another favorite – are baked, not fried, Francis said.

Green added that taking the temperature of food is a constant. Every day, refrigerators are also monitored for their storage temperatures.

In addition, all catering workers disinfect when they arrive in the morning. In view of COVID-19, disinfection is also required hourly in cafeterias. There is also a no-contact policy, she added, as catering workers always wear gloves.


Another big change that everyone realizes and misses is the laughter of children in school cafeterias because all students now eat their meals at their classroom desks behind a protective shield.

At Pocalla Springs Elementary School, cook Glenda McKnight said that.

For K-3 grades, food service personnel deliver prepackaged meals to school classrooms. Older students (fourth and fifth grade) go to the cafeteria to pick up their take-out food.

McKnight said the changes meant less interactions and that she was bored of greeting children in the lunch queue and cuddling.

With the virus initially spreading last spring, she was worried and cautious with her food service job, but with safety precautions in place and everyone doing their part, it helps a lot, she added.

A self-proclaimed “sociable person,” McKnight has always worked with people and enjoys him. She has been a cook in the neighborhood for five years, all in Pocalla Springs.

McKnight doesn’t see himself as a hero, she said. She just wants to treat others the way she would like to be treated.

“It’s gratifying to see a smile on a child’s face,” she said. “If I can make at least one person smile, I think I’ve done the right thing.”

Lori Werner is the school cafeteria manager and has worked in the field for 24 years in different states. She knows by heart that Pocalla Springs currently cooks 4,150 meals per week for students in person and also for pickup by parents of virtual students.

Given the changes due to COVID-19, many food service workers walk a lot more, she added.

They deliver the breakfasts to the classrooms and then pick them up, and it’s the same routine for lunch.

When elementary schools in the district were open four days a week earlier this spring, Werner used a pedometer to count his steps. In a four-day week, she walked more than 20 kilometers, she said.

She added that seeing smiles on children’s faces is one of the best parts of the job.

Another great motivation for Werner and others is that for many students, breakfast and lunch at school may be the only healthy and nutritious meals they receive in the course of a day or a week. week.

Everyone works hard every day with children at heart, she said.

“Breakfast and lunch provide fuel for our students, which helps them focus and learn throughout the day,” said Werner. “That’s the main reason we’re here. If children are hungry, they will not do well in school.


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