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Thursday, March 10, 2016

School Kitchen Staff - Food for Thought

This post is a resurrection of a speech I delivered at a regional conference for school food service workers. It's a tribute to those who too often work silently and invisibly within schools. They represent significant contributors to creating a positive school climate. They, and other staff members are diminished by the use of the term "support staff." Instead, their contributions can be described as "leading from behind."

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The President of Ford Motor Company once challenged the design engineers working on an idea for a new car to – “Develop the kind of car you want in your driveway?” High performing and proud food service workers prepare and serve food as if it was going to be served at their own table at home.

During the 33 years I have served children as a principal, and five years as superintendent, I have interacted with some very special people. There is one such man who I recall as a little boy years ago. I contact him every now and then to keep up with his progress as an adult because he continues to inspire me with his optimism and belief in overcoming odds. I recently exchanged e-mails with him and happened to mention that I was scheduled to speak tonight to the regional association of food service workers. He emailed me back with a note I’d like to share with you this evening.

Dear Mike:

I thought about the group you are going to be speaking to Thursday evening and I wanted to share something that has always been important to me.

As you know, our family was poor. My dad was a disabled, alcoholic, and troubled war veteran. My mom was depressed and suicidal, worn down by caring for the many needs of seven kids. Both of my parents quit school after tenth grade and started their litter of kids without anything but slim hopes.

Food was as important to me as it was for anyone. I remember how all of the kids at school used to collect canned goods for the poor for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remember how ashamed I felt when Mr. Murray, the principal before you, would come by our apartment later that day and present us with boxes of the canned goods. I felt ridiculous that first time, because I had even brought in a can of beans or something for the poor, only to find out we were the poor!

Maybe that’s why the subject of food service personnel is so important to me. I was among the very few in the school who qualified to receive free lunch. One day the cashier asked me why I was always the last one in line for food. I sheepishly admitted that it was because I didn't want my classmates to see my free lunch ticket while they were paying, for fear they would tease me - and they already teased me enough about wearing their hand-me-downs. The next day, she gave me a stack of envelopes and told me to put the ticket in an envelope and give it to her at the register and no one would know what was in it. Her pat on the back and her smile that day went a long way toward making me feel better at school.  

It always seemed that the nice ladies who served the food would put an extra scoop of food on my tray. I could tell from their soft and caring smiles, and their sympathetic eyes that they were mothers and really extended themselves for kids like me. I presumed that they knew about me and my family – either that or they just thought that the extra food might make me grow, since I was always the smallest kid in my grade.

Some of the very best meals I ever had as a child were prepared and served at school, especially those turkey and mashed potato lunches around the holidays. I always ate everything up and couldn’t understand how anyone could throw any of that great food away. Maybe it was because my family regularly dined on the government commodity food we got from the welfare agency. My mom was not creative enough to do much with the white butter, canned stringy turkey, lima beans, rice, powdered milk and powdered eggs, clear Karo syrup and all of other food that came in the boxes each month.

As I grew older and advanced to the junior-senior high school, I became more conscious of the stigma of being on free lunch. I recall how careful and considerate the cashiers were. They relieved me of some fear and discomfort by hiding my embarrassment and handling my free ticket in a way that the other kids, who could pay in cash, would not see my ticket and ridicule me for being poor. They also seemed to notice whenever I had a haircut or had something to smile about. Their little comments meant a lot to me. 

These women really took their jobs seriously. I’m sure that you’ve heard of the parable about the three stone cutters, each performing the exact same task. When asked, the first one said he was cutting stone, the second one said he was making a wall, but the third one exclaimed proudly that he was building a cathedral!

You might recall that my dad was a custodian at the hospital. I remember one night when he described his job as a “responsibility to provide clean and sterile rooms so the doctors and nurses could operate and do their highly skilled work.” He saw his job as much more than just mopping floors. He made it a calling – just like the women in the school kitchen who did so much more than simply preparing and serving food. That’s why I suspect these were the same women who brought in the hand-me-down clothes that were given to me by the school nurse and counselor. They always served me a smile with my meals and I wonder if they ever understood how much that meant to me. Now, as an adult, I aware of the powerful connection food has to people beyond nutrition. Our society emphasizes the social interaction associated with meals, whether it’s just the family sitting around the table at dinner time or a special event or holiday. Food is a reinforcer and it meets more needs than just nourishment of the body.

I want to update you on what I’ve been doing since our last correspondence. I was recently selected as the top performer of the year in my field out of over 500 people in the same position. And, you remember my oldest sister? Well, in the same year, she was selected as the top coach in her sport - in the whole country! 

In addition to these kind and caring ladies, many people helped us both along the way as we pursued our dreams – teachers, counselors, and a number of other staff members. I went all the way from the free lunch line in elementary school to the registration line at Harvard. Please slip in a thanks to the food service personnel from kids like me. Remind them of that cliché that the best way to someone’s heart is through their stomachs. Remind them that they do more than feed kids – they help feed dreams!

I hope that this letter reminds you of the tremendous contributions each of you make to the education process.

Thank you and good night.

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