Food for thought

As the importance of child nutrition has evolved, ‘lunch ladies’ bring valuable lessons to the table

Cumberland County Cafeteria Managers Tracy Smith, Amanda Mooney, and Teresa Huff pose for a portrait at Massey Hill Classical High School on July 14, 2022. Tony Wooten/CityView Media

By Bobby Parker| Photography by Tony Wooten

Feature | August 2022 Issue

The job of feeding schoolchildren has changed with the times, but the goals have remained essentially the same: Healthy meals, satisfied appetites, and a friendly face ladling the soup.


The “lunch ladies” of the past are now child nutritionists, but they still know what kids like to eat.


“It’s not just a job; it’s a passion,” says Amanda Mooney, nutrition services manager at Alderman Road Elementary School. “They need this meal.”


Mooney says “that little lady waving the spatula” and telling you to clean your plate is the wrong image for today’s nutrition staff.


“That’s not us,” Mooney says.


Mooney, who joined the nutrition staff straight out of high school and is now headed for supervisor training, loves connecting with the students.


“It’s rewarding to every day see kids come through the line,” she says. “I like the babies the best. You can relate. And just to get their reaction — they’re excited to see you.”


It’s a feeling that Teresa Huff shares.


“I have seen these babies from elementary to senior years,” says Huff, manager of nutrition services at Douglas Byrd High School and Massey Hill Classical High School. “From the time they can’t look over the serving counter until they’re taller than you are. Kids remember the cafeteria staff; we’re all helpers.”


Huff says the students get to know her staff and identify them as “the main dish” — the cook whose specialty is the lasagna, the chicken-and-rice casserole, or the pizza that is a particular student’s favorite.


Menus are planned countywide in the Cumberland County Schools district. But Huff says the nutrition staff offers occasional food tastings to get student feedback.


“It’s important to let the children choose,” says Huff, the mother of three sons in a military family. “And kids are the first ones to let you know what they like.”
The pizza and chicken sandwich will always be popular, Mooney says, “but sometimes, it’s that broccoli they like.”


Huff likes to think of herself as a teacher, helping students make good choices in what they eat. That may mean introducing a vegetable that a student has never tried.


Mooney adds that eating well can make a difference in whether kids succeed in the classroom.


“If I’m hungry, I can’t concentrate,” she notes.


In the past couple of years, the child nutrition staff has faced challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. At its height, students were learning from home in virtual classrooms. The district continued to provide meals, including free breakfasts, that were packaged and delivered outside the schools.
That meant extra work for the cafeteria staff.


“We came quietly, and we stayed late,” says Huff. “But you were doing something for the children in your community. We took that weight off the parents.”
Cafeteria managers and staff undergo constant training in nutrition guidelines and how to encourage children to stick to a healthy diet.


Mooney, Huff and Tracy Smith all agree on one guiding principle: “Children eat with their eyes.”


Smith, who is assistant nutrition manager at Massey Hill Classical High School, explains that presentation is important to helping kids make “good choices.”


She says lunchtime is 30 minutes of social time with friends for the students. It’s important to make eye contact with them and let them know you care.


“High schoolers need that interaction,” says Smith, who worked in child care before joining the school system in 2019. “I say hi to them and, ‘Hope you enjoy your lunch.’ When children come in, they should receive food in a different environment and try different things. It should feel like Christmas morning.


“It gives you joy in your heart,” Smith says. “You interact with children on a different level and let them know that they are valuable.”