Let's Do (school) Lunch!

Have you thought about “lunch ladies” much lately?  I have.  There are two reasons, really.  First, a year or so ago, one of my “lunch ladies” from Obion Elementary passed away.  I attended this prestigious school in the 70’s so as you can imagine she was clearly at the age you would expect such a transition.  As I was scrolling Facebook about that time, I saw one particularly touching tribute to this sweet woman. I was moved by how much the writer, an even older male classmate, remembered of her kind attention to the daily service of school meals.  The second was a book I’ve just read titled “The Lunch Ladies.”  It’s actually about a church youth group in Middle Tennessee who formed a task force to insure that new members to their gatherings were welcomed and made to feel included.  As they searched for a name for their special committee they chose “Lunch Ladies”.  They said, “if you think about it, the lunch ladies are about the only people inside the cafeteria that associate with everybody, regardless of who you are or where you sit.”

As I pondered these two things, I decided to highlight another “strong woman on a journey”, Angie Morris, who as you’ve probably guessed, is a “lunch lady.”

Angie attended school at Black Oak Elementary very near where I live in rural West Tennessee.  Their mascot is the eagle.  She only went to college for a short time, married Jonathan and had Aleix and Jon-Andrew.  A job that followed the school schedule seemed perfect when she decided to re-enter the workforce so she took inventory of her skills (cooking) and her passion (loving kids) and became a “worker” in the same cafeteria where she had enjoyed lunches all those years ago.

When the Cafeteria Manager decided to retire, Angie decided to try for that job.  As fate would have it, the State of Tennessee conducted a week-long intensive workshop called School Nutrition Chefs and she was one of only 20 selected to attend.  As she describes it, the goal was to train school chefs to help students “fall in love with school food again.”  (When she said this I remembered those school rolls and immediately knew what she was talking about.”)  They learned all sorts of “hacks” to add value to the school lunch experience like using seasonings and making tiny cuts on the hot dogs to mimic grill marks because as she put it,”kids eat with their eyes, too.”

Angie brought her new found “smarts” back to Obion County and snagged the job she had set her sights on as manager in the cafeteria at Black Oak.  Before she signed her contract accepting the position, she boldly told her new boss at the Central Office, “I want to make sure you are up for adventures!”  As I learned more about Angie, I realized that “adventures” would be a common theme when discussing her passion for her work.

You see, she actually wants dining in the school cafeteria to be an adventure and an experience for kids at her school.  It’s really not a cafeteria she told me but rather, it’s the “Eagle Cafe.” She painted the walls to create a more inviting space and decorates for each and every holiday because lots of her students just don’t get that kind of thing at home.  There’s another thing that Angie is afraid they don’t get much of and that is a smile.  She makes sure that her employees, which she calls “Eagle Cafe Lunch Beauties” (not lunch ladies, I noted) show up each day ready to smile because her concern is “that their smile might be the only one some of these babies see each day.”

I’m convinced that Angie shows up each day at 6am with a smile and her “A” game.  I was impressed by so many of her tips, strategies and her management style.  Apparently, others have been as well.  She was asked several years ago to present at school nutrition conferences all across the state and has shared with many others how she is able to elevate a meal she prepares for 240 kids each day to an experience they can look forward to and enjoy.  Let’s face it, the thing most dreaded by those in this profession is a full plate of food being tossed in the garbage. Angie has literally learned the “secret sauce” to keep this from happening.  

I learned that she’s not only preparing tasty, attractive meals for kids but is also asking God to “show her what she needs to see” just in case some of her “babies” need an extra hug or encouraging word.  It was touching to hear that last month when a community many of her students live in was ravaged by a tornado, she couldn’t sleep and was worried sick until she heard that they were all safe.  Naturally, she began immediately to make plans to prepare meals for those that needed them during that emergency.  That wasn’t hard for her, she had organized similar efforts when schools closed for Covid and she believed many of her students were food insecure.  That time, she got a box truck, assembled a team, and went around the neighborhoods passing out lunches to kids. I’m thinking that was definitely an adventure!

This month our little social enterprise, OUTsideIN, is focusing on doing small things with great love.  Most of us think of a school lunch as a very small thing but let me assure you that Angie Morris does not.  Even so, you better believe she is doing it with great love.

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