Sandy Herndon wants the cafeteria at Scottsville Elementary to be a safe haven for students.
Herndon, the cafeteria manager at Scottsville, and Kara Redman make a point to get to know each student and check-in on them as they come through the lunch line. They also want children to have fun at lunch. For Halloween, they drew Jack-O-Lantern faces on 160 clementines, one for each student.
“I just can’t emphasize enough how much she goes above and beyond,” Scottsville principal Staci England said. “Kids know that if they need a hug or a little extra food, she’ll be there to help.”
Herndon has worked in Scottsville’s cafeteria for eight years. Her mom was a cafeteria worker. Redman has been at Scottsville for three years and started working with the school system when her children started school.
The cafeteria team starts their day with breakfast, since every student in Albemarle County can get a free breakfast. Then, they start prepping for lunch, which starts at 10:30 a.m. with the kindergartners. After students grab a tray of food, Herndon and Redman wander throughout the cafeteria, chatting with students, before heading back to prepare for the next round of lunches.
England said in addition to knowing students’ names, the cafeteria team has learned their preferences like plain or chocolate milk. That came in handy last year when they were packing lunches for students to eat in their classrooms or at home.
Students didn’t visit the cafeteria for lunch last school year after in-person classes resumed. But, Herndon and Redman would slip in stickers or notes of encouragement into the lunch boxes, England said.
“Sandy has so much experience and wisdom,” England said. “When they are kids who are having a bad day, she steps in and helps with that too because she sees them all as they go through the lunch line.”
This year is much better with students back in the cafeteria, Herndon and Redman said. They missed interacting with the students, which is their favorite part of the job.
Another perk this year is that the two women are getting to know more students coming through the lunch line. School lunches are free this year for all students after the U.S. Department of Agriculture extended its free lunch program through the end of the 2021-22 school year in response to the ongoing pandemic.
That change has removed barriers for students and ensures that everyone gets a healthy lunch, the cafeteria team said. Previously, students could free or reduced-priced lunch if their families filled out a form and qualified.
“This year, we’ve noticed that we’ve gotten a lot more participation with it all being free,” Herndon said. “We’re seeing a lot of the kids that we normally wouldn’t see, unless they came in for something. Our packers are now coming in through the lunch line and stuff. Hopefully, it will stay that way even if we go back to paying.”
Redman said that students who bring their own food typically still get a school lunch.
“They’re at that age when they’re hungry,” she said. “Some come back and want thirds. … I think the free lunch is definitely a benefit.”
Getting to know each student means that Herndon and Redman can better help a kid who might need extra food. For those kids, Herndon said they’ll remind them to grab all the food options: the entree, a hot vegetable, a cold vegetable, fruit and a milk.
“We just remind them to take all of it when they go through the line,” she said. “Then they know they can come back and get an extra vegetable or an extra fruit if they’re still hungry.”
Scottsville students love fresh food and are good about eating their fruits and veggies, the ladies said. They do give students another serving of fruits and veggies if they are still hungry.
Making sure kids have the nourishment they need is a big part of what Herndon and Redman do.
“Because they can’t think or participate in class if they are hungry,” Herndon said.
The cafeteria team also has to contend with other ramifications of the pandemic from social distancing to shortages of supplies and ingredients that has forced them to be creative. For example, one lunch last week was supposed to be cheeseburgers. But they didn’t have enough patties. They made chicken sandwiches and chicken nuggets to supplement the burgers they did have.
This year, food deliveries have been less consistent, in part because of a shortage in truck drivers, and what supplies they’ll actually get has been uncertain. One item in short supply this school year across Albemarle County and the country is pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“The peanut butter and jelly is probably the biggest hot commodity right now for kids,” Herndon said. “Especially elementary kids because that’s their go-to if something looks a little funny. They know they can rely on the peanut butter and jelly.”
School systems in the area and throughout the country have struggled to fill several key positions such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers, officially called food service associates. Near the start of the school year, the child nutrition department had 11 vacancies.
Herndon and Redmon said they didn’t think about not coming back to work at Scottsville this year.
“Because we finally got all the babies back,” Herndon said.