Celebrating National School Lunch Hero Day 2022 – Advice Eating

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  • This National School Lunch Hero Day, hear the stories of three cafeteria workers from across North Carolina, including what they think the public should know about their job 👇 // @SchoolLunch @ncschoolmeals @carolina_hunger

  • “All I can do is be out there and show the kids how much we care about them and make their eating experience a joyous one.” This National School Lunch Hero Day, meet three school lunch heroes from across North Carolina.

Friday, May 6th is the 10th annual National School Lunch Hero Day – a moment to celebrate the hard-working school cafeteria professionals who work every day to prepare and serve nutritious meals to students across the country. These are the stories of three North Carolina school lunch heroes.

Doreen DeJaynes, Alma Easom Elementary School

Doreen DeJaynes is almost 65 years old, but she can still remember the kindness and warmth of Miss Hope, Miss Maggie and Miss White – her elementary school lunch ladies. Although DeJaynes never intended to work in school meals, she is now the assistant cafeteria manager at Alma Easom Elementary, a K-1 school in Cumberland County. And she encourages everyone she knows to consider exploring child nutrition.

“It’s fulfilling. I can’t explain the satisfaction I get from knowing I’m feeding these hungry children,” she said.

DeJaynes works every day to make the same impression on Alma Easom’s students that her own elementary school lunch ladies made on her, and that means more than just feeding the students. DeJaynes and her school nutrition team are often the first to greet students in the morning, give them smiles, give them hi-fives and ask how they are, providing each student with a bright start to the day.

During the pandemic, DeJaynes said her biggest sense of loss came from not being able to see students’ faces every day.

“And even when we came back in limited capacity and everyone was wearing masks … I couldn’t learn their names, I couldn’t have conversations with them,” she said.

Now that the masks are off and the students are coming back through the noon line, DeJaynes works to connect with and acknowledge each student every day.

Lorna Walters, Doreen DeJaynes and Toni Littlewood work in child nutrition at Alma Easom Elementary. Courtesy of Doreen DeJaynes

Even when work gets tiring, DeJaynes says, “I will always choose joy.”

“All I can do is be out there and show the kids how much we care about them and make their eating experience a joyous one,” she said.

DeJaynes has worked in school meals long enough that some of the students she fed as elementary school students are now high school graduates. When she sees them around town, she says they often remember her and compliment her.

“So to me, I’m my childhood Miss Maggie,” she said.

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Teresa Huff, Douglas Byrd High

Teresa Huff is a military wife and mother of three. After being stationed in Germany and running a daycare center, her family moved to Fort Bragg around 1997. She started working at a chain of restaurants, but it was a lot to juggle, especially when her husband was on the job. She then heard about child nutrition opportunities and began working in school meals, initially through a staffing agency and then full-time.

She says child nutrition has opened so many doors for her and her family that she can spend more time with her kids and still pursue a career. Now Huff has been involved in school nutrition for about 12 years and currently works as the cafeteria manager at Douglas Byrd High in Cumberland County.

Huff says that she and her entire team of school nutritionists are the first things the kids see when they walk through the door in the morning. Almost every school day comes with a new challenge, but Huff says everyone at the school has a role to play in making sure students get nutritious meals, including school administrators and teachers.

“Most of the credit goes only to my staff for showing up and giving so much,” she said. “I couldn’t do what I do without her.”

For Huff, the most rewarding part of her job is the impact she can have on students’ lives by engaging with them in the cafeteria, saying “good morning” or “congratulations on your scholarship”! The second best part of her job is “penetrating people” by training the next generation of professionals dedicated to child nutrition.

“Everyone who walks through the door has something to bring to the team, big or small – everyone is valued,” she said.

Outside the cafeteria, Huff works to educate her community about the reality of childhood hunger and the role school feeding programs play in alleviating food insecurity.

“Our voices matter if we just educate, educate, educate and communicate that this program is so valuable,” she said.

Mickiala Fuentez, McDougle Elementary School

Mickiala Fuentez has a passion for cooking. She started her career in school nutrition as a cashier with the aim of working her way up to become a chef. Now she serves as the cafeteria manager at McDougle Elementary School.

Your favorite part of your job? “The children,” she said. “I like it when we’re serving the kids for the first time and they’re like, ‘Oh, what is that?’ I love their facial expressions, especially on the elemental side.”

A typical day for Fuentez starts in the morning with making sure enough food has been prepared for the day, checking email and entering production records for the first part of the day. At lunchtime she makes sure the food is out, hot and ready and that there is enough for all the students. Her day ends around 2:30pm after making sure all the food is ready for breakfast the next day.

Even when her job gets hectic, Fuentez says she loves him because of the students she serves. Fuentez was recently asked by a parent if she could serve her child an extra lunch a day because they eat more at school than at home.

The McDougle Elementary School child nutrition team. Courtesy of Mickiala Fuentez

What our school nutrition experts want you to know

We asked these school nutritionists what they think the public should know about their job. Here’s what they said:

“I’m not sure people are really aware of the work that goes into planning these menus.”

Doreen DeJaynes, assistant cafeteria manager at Alma Easom Elementary

From dietary requirements to childhood allergies, DeJaynes says a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to prepare safe and nutritious meals for students that meet strict eating pattern requirements. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets requirements for school meals that dictate the amount and type of food to be served, including, for example, specific requirements for dark green versus red and orange versus starchy vegetables.

“I think people think we’re a program that’s fully funded.”

Teresa Huff, cafeteria manager at Douglas Byrd High

The vast majority of funding for school meals comes from federal reimbursements, and child nutrition departments operate financially independently of their school districts as self-sustaining, not-for-profit corporations. School feeding programs rely on federal reimbursement of less than $4 per meal to cover everything from food costs to equipment upgrades to staff salaries. For more information on school food funding, see this article.

“We don’t have packaged groceries. Everything we make, we cook.”

Mickiala Fuentez, cafeteria manager at McDougle Elementary

On social media, Fuentez sees hints of people assuming everything on the school lunch tray is prepackaged, but her cafeteria cooks every meal from scratch. Recent examples of appetizers include turkey, lemon herb chicken, rotisserie chicken, and enchiladas served with vegetables like collards, mashed potatoes, and sautéed squash.

Analissa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a candidate for a Masters in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and previously served as Chief of Staff and Associate Director of Policy for EducationNC.

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