The hand that holds mine on our path through life is chapped and cut and burned: the wages, along a few dollars an hour, of preparing 400 school meals a day.
Her day begins early. Up and out the door by 5:20, she races through eight hours of cooking, serving, moving tables, cleaning, and stocking deliveries, all on a concrete floor.
Beyond the obvious, budgets must be met, refrigerator temperatures documented (Who knew?), inventory surveyed, free and reduced lunch records kept, and parents contacted when their accounts have zeroed out. That last must be fun. Enduring a sore back and aching feet, she often works after compensated time, even on weekends, to complete this hidden work.
In addition to navigating the often-conflicting expectations of her food service manager and site principal, she must be ready for government health inspectors. Not for nothing is she proud of her perfect record of “excellent” evaluations.
Maintaining morale on her three-person team is always a priority. In this low-paying and unfairly low-status job, small celebrations like birthdays matter. But more important is that her team knows they can talk and she will listen. If they need time to attend a sick child or go to the doctor, they know she will protect their wellbeing and encourage them to take what time they need.
Yet above all, she nourishes her children and keeps them safe. Pass along all the “mystery meat” jokes you want; her school continually serves more meals per month per capita than any in her district. She won’t see a kid go without eating. She is scrupulous about cleanliness, earning eye-rolls from team members when she makes them change their gloves if they pick something up from the floor. But she fears the day when an illness can be traced to the cafeteria.
She nourishes more than bodies. Every student is “sweetheart” or “honey.” And she probably knows more students by name and family circumstance than any other employee at her school. We’ve been at the mall and I’ve seen children leave their mothers’ side to run up and hug her. The mothers’ questioning looks turn to smiles and waves when the kids return and explain who the stranger is.
Another story must be related. In her first year as a manager she noticed that a student, who lived alone with his father, always wore the same clothes. Knowing the family was in need, she wanted to give the child some of our boys’ old clothes. She contacted the father who gave permission. The day after she gave the student his new clothes he was in line in the cafeteria. “Look Miss!” he called, head held high and smiling, showing off his new look.
One child at a time we educate our nation. She gets that.
Her name is Mary Merz and she represents thousands of food service employees who work to meet needs more basic than reading and math.
Like teachers, food service employees work face to face with children. And like teachers they often receive praise, gratitude, and support from her administrators. But also like teachers they are tasked with executing policies they have little, if any, voice in crafting. I wondered what she would recommend if her administrators asked what policy change she would like to see. The answer was more autonomy to manage her cafeteria. After all, she says, “I’m the manager.” Things might be changing. The food service coordinator is considering her request to give kids two packets of ketchup instead of the mandated one.
Along with many teachers, she often doesn’t feel respected for the work she does. But it gives me pause to write that most the disrespect she receives comes from…teachers. With little consideration of her workload, some will ask her to make sure the cafeteria tables are ready for their special event, after which they leave the cleaning to her. One has told a teammate that he is here, holding his hand up high, but she is here, holding his hand down low. I have to believe that these stories are exceptions.
They shame me just the same. I don’t even know the name of the cafeteria manager at my school.