A hunger for service

Head lunch lady Penny Potter, staff work behind scenes every day


Myles Wilson

Head cafeteria worker Penny Potter enjoys happy students coming through the lines.

The soft hum of fluorescent lights fill the office as head cafeteria worker Penny Potter begins sorting through her paperwork. Little by little the cafeteria staff begins to trickle in. The kitchen comes to life as the ruckus of metal trays overpower the sound of Potter quietly scheduling food orders.

As the clock’s hand reaches 11:25 a.m., the cafeteria staff is already in their stations. The grills are fired up while trays are pre-made and filled with food for the first wave of students who will begin pouring into the cafeteria.

Potter is constantly going around high schools preparing the paperwork needed to make next week’s lunch possible. She has held this job for 26 years and every day is a new challenge.

“I have three production records to do every day for the breakfast [and] lunch, and now we have the dinners,” Potter said. “So there’s three production orders, two truck orders a week, three milk deliveries a week, so it’s just thinking about all of that and making sure you have food all the time.”

With all the work that needs to be completed, it can all get a little overwhelming. Potter thinks about the hundreds of students rushing through her line in the span of an hour. The first one of those minutes being the hardest because almost everyone is trying to grab food first.

“You’ve got to psych yourself up in the morning,” cafeteria worker Eileen Roper said. “You’ve got to get your recipes, take your cart, pick up all your dry goods and start preparing it.”

The cafeteria staff is responsible for everything; they start their day preparing the food by cutting vegetables and defrosting the meat. They keep the meals at their correct temperatures to ensure no one develops food poisoning. Being responsible for the health of all students as far as what is consumed takes an excessive amount of effort. It is especially difficult for Potter and the cafeteria staff when a coworker is absent.

“You’re responsible if a person is [absent] and they had to mop up the floor,” Roper said. “[Now] you have to mop the floor [and] if we’re short a dishwasher [then] I have to go fill out for the dishwasher. If you’re short a person or two, and God help you if you’re short three, it makes you want to slip out the back door.”

When the cafeteria workers do their jobs it’s more than simply cooking food and serving it. They have to set out food hours before serving time, only because the sheer size of it takes so long to defrost and be ready to cook in the morning.

“You order [the food] and get two orders a week – like the order that comes in Thursday is going to have enough food on it for Friday, Monday and Tuesday so you got to prepare and think about it three or four days in advance as far as ordering,” Potter said. “If you’re going to set out ground beef, because they’re five pound tubs, it takes a couple days to defrost. There’s a lot to think about.”

Being a part of the cafeteria staff requires teamwork and a leveled head. Potter describes the chaos lunch brings and how it can be exhausting. Handling so many different personalities at once can be overwhelming.

“There’s 18 people here, 18 different personalities, I have special need employees,” Potter said. “I have a variety of people and sometimes bringing them all together and making them see what needs to be done and having them understand is difficult sometimes.”

Potter keeps up with both the staff and students of the school. Even as the school year is winding down and seniors are transitioning out of school, there is always a mouth to feed and cafeteria workers are always available for the job.

“Every day is a new day and we start off with a smile,” cafeteria worker Shelly Harbin said.