It Can Be Done!

It Can Be Done!

Wed 15 Aug 2012

Story by Meggen Hanna

My name is Meggen Hanna. I am proud to be a lunch lady at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden, Vermont. I have been cooking for the kids and faculty for two years now and loving every minute of it.

It Can’t Be Done…

With those four words a lunch lady was born. How did I get here? The story is a simple one. It all began when my oldest son started kindergarten 6 years ago. Of all the things that concerned me (how will he do? will he make friends? will he get on the wrong bus?), school lunch was not on my list. I am from the generation when school lunch ladies sweated away in the kitchen bringing things like goulash and fresh baked rolls to the lunch room. Okay, the green beans were canned; frozen vegetables had yet to become popular and fresh vegetables were cooked to a state of mush. But the core was there. Serving heavily- processed frozen meals was not an option. Lunch ladies cooked!

Boy, was I surprised when I actually got a look at the contents on the lunch tray my son was being served. When did disposable Styrofoam replace the washable lunch tray? When did a plastic spork replace a fork, spoon and knife? When did heating frozen meals replace scratch cooking? Other parents shared my concern. As the token chef in the group, they came to me and posed the question, “Can’t we do better?” “Of course we can,” I said.

And so it began a quest that took more than two years of meetings and constant frustration. I could say my efforts ended with the four words mentioned but that is, actually, where this story begins.

Invigorated To Make A Difference And Inspire Others To Do The Same

I took the unspoken challenge, made a phone call to a friend I had made along the way who oversees school accounts in our area (I had previously met with him to investigate school lunch programs), was hired by the Abbey Group (a local school food -service program) and everything changed. Instead of feeling defeated by my lack of progress within my own school district, I felt invigorated. I could make a difference and hopefully, along the way, inspire others to do the same.

There are things that can be a bit of a challenge. There are more than a few government regulations, increasingly tight budgets for food and labor, trying to incorporate USDA commodities into menus and the biggest challenge of all - changing the palates of the students.

Much like home, it can take a few tries to get the kids on board with new items. For example, experiencing the defeated look of a first grader when you tell him, “No, we won’t be serving chicken patties anymore. It will be a chicken breast from here on out.” But when the students come up and ask for seconds on a black bean and corn salad or really love barley tabouleh it makes all the difference.

I am very fortunate to work for a company that supports my vision, even when I haven’t entirely convinced them yet. It helps when the state comes in to evaluate our program and says “They have never seen anything like us and we are setting standards that others should follow.” It is invaluable to have the support of your principal and the staff. Thanks to teachers Jesse Shapiro, Mariah Freemole and the students, we have a beautiful vegetable garden whose bounty we enjoy in the lunch room.

Planting The Seed Of Good Nutrition Through A Culinary Workshop

This past year I added a cooking program for the kindergarteners wherein I start the students early in the kitchen, planting the seed of good nutrition through cooking, something I started with my own children.

Years ago when my oldest was in pre-school, parents would take turns bringing in snacks for the students. I was granted permission to change it up a little; and instead of bringing in a snack, I prepared one with the kids. The owner, Linda Grady, loved it so much she asked if we could incorporate it into the curriculum. So, The Vegetable Garden Program (planting the seed of good nutrition through cooking) was born. The response from the children and their parents was all that we hoped it would be. The children were trying new things and were eager to share their new knowledge at home.

This program ran for the four years my boys were in pre-school and overlapped into elementary school as well. Once I became a lunch lady at Barstow Memorial School, I was thrilled to have the support of Hillary Redman (thank you for loaning me your students!) and started the program up again. It is now referred to as Culinary Workshop and the students have been great. In addition to all the expected benefits I have enjoyed a new one, a special relationship with the children. It has changed the dynamics of breakfast and lunch, the students are eager to try new things, they ask questions about the food and they are comfortable in the lunch room. They even made a rhubarb pie for me in the classroom as a surprise. I couldn’t ask for more and the pie was delicious!

Food is life. We feed our students well; believing, when you nourish your body properly you learn better, behave better, feel better and know you matter.

All I can say to the skeptics is, “Not only can it be done, we are doing it!”

About the author: Meggen Hanna, wife, mother and lunch lady/chef, is a Johnson and Wales University graduate of the Culinary Arts Program and has worked in the food service industry for 25 years. She met her husband, Dermot, 23 years ago when they were both working on Nantucket Island. Together they settled in Rutland Vermont to raise their family. Meggen and Dermot have two beautiful sons, Nolan – age 11 and Corrigan – age 8. Meggen is also the host of LUNCH LADIES RULE! a cooking show on PEGTV channel 15.


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