More than 600 meals a day, five days a week: That's how many breakfasts and lunches are served at Thomson Middle School, on average.
The middle school serves more lunches than any other McDuffie County school, according to monthly reports given at Board of Education meetings. Six women do all the work, and they seem to agree on the satisfaction in the job.
"I like serving the kids," said Bridget Nelson. "I like to see their faces coming in smiling. We make sure they get a good meal."
Ms. Nelson, Brenda Davis, Judy Gautreaux, Elaine Dawson, Imojean Clemenes and their manager, Donna Sullivan, get to work every morning around 6:30 to start cooking.
"I get up bright and early and love coming to work, and I have for 27 years," Ms. Clemenes said with a smile. "I love the kids, because I never had any of my own. I love my job."
There's more to the job than standing over a hot stove. Ms. Sullivan said that every meal that's served has to meet federal nutrition guidelines. Of the four food groups -- protein, carbohydrate, vegetable or fruit and dairy-- every middle school-age child must have at least three, according to nutrition standards. And three varieties of milk are the only drink that's offered elementary and middle school pupils, as required by the United States Department of Agriculture. These days, not only is the school nutrition employee supposed to make sure children drink their milk and eat their vegetables, but she has got to control their waistlines.
"You may have heard of the national controversy where there are people in Congress who are trying to come up with new regulations for school lunchrooms to cut down on the national obesity problem," Assistant Superintendent Jim Franklin said. "But the obesity problem cannot be from the school lunchrooms ... because we already are required by law to meet certain nutrition standards and the fat content cannot be that high."
But the schools are doing what they can to help. In McDuffie County, the high school is the only school that offers fried foods. French fries, chicken nuggets and other traditionally fried foods are baked at all the lower grade schools.
"It's better for them, but they don't like it," Ms. Clemenes said. "They'd rather have the greasy stuff."
All this nutrition comes with a price tag. But the nutrition department must follow a budget.
Every year, the Board of Education accepts bids from food vendors, and the department director signs a contract for the year based on the lowest bid.
This means cafeteria managers only have one food, bread, dairy and produce vendor, and they can order the items only preapproved on the contract.
In years past, the school system contracted two fresh produce deliveries each week. To cut expenses this year, that number was reduced to one, according to Ms. Sullivan.
The middle school's delivery is on Wednesday, which makes it difficult to keep produce fresh over the weekend.
"That will be different every year because we should have a new director and there will be new bidding," Ms. Sullivan said.
Like any good manager, Ms. Sullivan has learned the tricks of the trade. The school system receives meats and canned items free from the USDA. So, menus are planned with one free item and one paid item for each meal.
Not only do they work within federal guidelines and local budgets but also cafeteria workers must meet the standards of children's taste buds. Ms. Sullivan said she plans hot dogs, pizza, hamburgers and chicken sandwiches regularly.
"We know what our kids like," she said proudly.
A few of the pupils interviewed in the cafeteria complained the menu was too monotonous.
"We like other stuff, too," Adrienne Gaines said. "Like hot wings, turkey, corn on the cob, egg rolls or Chinese food."
But without exception, every child interviewed said the chicken sandwich was their favorite. A fact Ms. Sullivan was well aware of.
"We used to have baked chicken every Friday," she said. "But, you put whole pieces of baked chicken on the line and they'll still choose the processed, breaded chicken patty every time."
And then there are the health inspector's standards. Safety guidelines are followed every step of the process: from storage of food on its arrival to clean up after it's consumed.
At each meal, Ms. Clemenes has the responsibility of making a sample tray, which contains every item on the serving line. The tray is wrapped and frozen for seven days.
"We like to call it our 'dead man walking plate,' because it's dead on the line and it's not going anywhere," she said with a laugh, explaining that the tray would be sent to a lab for testing if a child ever became sick with a food-borne illness. In her 27 years , Ms. Clemenes said she has never had to send a tray to the lab.
"These ladies always go above and beyond," said teacher Jennifer Coleman.
"Breakfast and lunch is always served on time and is cooked right. They are always professional. They offer choices to students who have no money. No child goes hungry. I think they do a good job with what resources they have."
During their lunch break -- which is at 10 a.m. so they can serve at noon -- the ladies created quite a ruckus laughing and teasing each other.
"I've really got some great ladies here," Ms. Sullivan said. "We get along real well. We're like family."
The workers did not have a single complaint about their jobs. It was another school employee who told of their occasional obstacle of class schedules.
The end of the school year means field trips, Renaissance rallies and catch-up courses that change the regular schedule. According to the employee, a class arrived late one day, and came in after the food was put away, the dishwasher emptied and all the tables were folded up.
Ms. Sullivan acknowledged the incident and admitted it made the afternoon a little hectic. But she said they were able to pull everything back out and feed the children.
"They're a great bunch of co-workers," Principal Claude Powell said. "They work well together and are part of the family here at Thomson Middle School. They do an awesome job."
Last week was National School Nutrition Employee Week, and all cafeteria employees in McDuffie County received a decorated tote bag as a gift of appreciation. But the ladies at Thomson Middle said they receive their rewards every day "from the kids."
"One of them saw me in the shopping center. He was all grown up and said
'You don't remember me, but you used to serve me lunch.' And then he told me what all he's doing now," Ms. Clemenes said. "That makes me feel so good when that happens. I never forget it."