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'Veggie Lady' Has Fun and Success in School Cafeteria

by on May 04, 2011 6:00 AM

A few weeks ago, I checked in for my two-hour volunteer shift at Easterly Parkway Elementary School, stopping in the lobby to get my visitor’s badge.

“I’m here to volunteer in the cafeteria,” I told the secretary.

“Why?” she asked, with a raised eyebrow.

Her reaction mirrored that of my son’s kindergarten teacher and several other school employees I met that day. While the classroom was inundated with parents eager to help teach kids about reading and writing, few volunteers stepped foot in the cafeteria.

I’m not judging. Most of us want our kids to grow up with an appreciation for reading and writing. Whether they grow up to be craniofacial surgeons or crossing guards, they’ll need those skills to achieve their goals. Reading enhances your vocabulary, ignites your imagination and broadens your perspective on life. It’s why there are few images more rewarding as a parent than that of your child snuggled up on a couch engrossed in a book.

As for what goes on in the school cafeteria? For the most part, parents seem content to leave the task to others. (When the food services director advertised for volunteers on a school menu that was published at the start of the school year, only two parents responded.) If we don’t like the choices being offered on the menu, we can simply pack their lunch. With more households in which both parents work, and stay-at-home moms taking on more and more volunteer duties, school lunch is at the back of a long line of issues.

But I’ve always been obsessed with food. The smell of onion, garlic and olive oil will forever take me back to my childhood kitchen, where my mom typically served three meals a day at a dinner table. Most days, the TV was off and the only sound was our banter. Sure, we ate pizza and macaroni and cheese — my favorite meal as a kid was Kraft Mac & Cheese with the orange powder — but we almost always ate together, and we learned to expect at least one fruit and vegetable with our main course. Food wasn’t simply fuel; it was something to be savored and enjoyed over laughter and lively conversation.

As a parent, I equated food with a way to impact my son’s life. I couldn’t control whether he developed asthma or whether the 3-year-old toddler at his preschool would send him tumbling off a pile of mulch, but I could feed him spinach as a 1-year-old and pistachios and dried mango as a 6-year-old. Plus, I enjoy the process, whether it’s chopping carrots or observing my son trying a piece of sliced orange for the 79th time and realizing that it is, in fact, delicious. Even better than watching my son read on the couch for 30 minutes? Looking up every few minutes to see him grab an apple slice.

After I wrote my first column on school lunch and followed that up with part one and two of a Q&A with the food services director of the school district, I learned that she actually welcomed volunteers in the cafeteria. (There’s even a PDF file of guidelines.) So I signed up for duty, thinking it would be fun, great fodder for this column, and maybe encourage other parents to do the same.

When I checked in, I was happy to discover that the head of the cafeteria program knew about my arrival and was eager to put me to work. She opened an industrial-sized refrigerator and pointed out two trays of produce: one with fruit and one with vegetables. My job would be to walk from table to table, offering a sample to each child who wanted one. I’ve heard from parents in the school district that their kids have complained about bruised fruit and sad-looking produce. But this stuff looked fresh. The kiwi slices were firm and shiny, and the carrots looked like they’d produce a satisfying crunch.

Armed with a tray of fruit, I walked into the bustling lunchroom, and the students were immediately captivated.

“Who wants some yummy fruit?” I yelled to my first batch of customers.

“Who are you?” they demanded. “Why are you doing this?” “Are you coming back?”

“I’m a mom,” I said.

“I thought it would be fun.” (I was right; I found myself smiling the whole time.)

“I might be back.”

The kids went crazy for the kiwi, and I couldn’t believe how many of them could actually identify it. The grapes and orange slices were also a hit, with the cantaloupe and honeydew coming in third and fourth place, respectively. Sadly, few kids knew what the “green stuff” was, and one kid kept referring to it as the “the dew.” Nearly every kid I met took fruit, and many of them were running from their tables for another piece. (“One per child,” a stern-looking school official told them, instructing them to remain in their seats.) I was a bit worried about running out for the next batch of kids, so I went back into the kitchen to grab my tray of veggies.

I assumed the vegetables would be a harder sell, but I was wrong. Apparently kids, mostly girls it seemed, love celery and cherry tomatoes. Carrots came in third place, followed closely by broccoli. When I got to my son’s table, I think my vegetable-adverse child was shocked to find that his best friend would willingly choose a piece of broccoli over a carrot.

“C’mon, take the broccoli,” he told him.

Before long the kids were yelling, “Hey, veggie lady,” and I was hustling to get to the next table of eager customers.

As I handed out the vegetables, I took careful note of what the kids were eating. Most of the buyers had chosen a grilled cheese sandwich, chocolate, strawberry or vanilla milk and a bag of sliced apples. As the director explained to me in one of our earlier interviews, when planning a meal, she needs to weigh nutritional and economical factors with a concern that outweighs the others: Will the kids eat it? If the kids don’t eat what she’s serving, she can’t pay for the program. No worries on this day: The grilled cheese sandwiches were flying off the shelf.

A handful of kids had packed, including one girl who was eating from a meticulously prepared bento box (I wanted her mom to cook for me), another who was eating a sandwich with gluten-free bread baked by her mother (“You have a good mom,” I told her), and another who was eating some fried chicken. Then there was the kid who laughed at my offer to try a vegetable. I looked down to discover his lunch: a Ziplock bag filled with sliced carrots, peppers and celery.

My plan was to take a break halfway into the lunch program and share a grilled cheese sandwich with my son. But I never had a chance to sit down. By the end of the second hour, the floor was a mess. I was getting tired and sloppy, and the grapes and tomatoes were rolling under the tables and getting squashed. Carefully avoiding eye contact with the kids, I ducked back into the kitchen and took a two-minute break.

“I don’t get it,” the cafeteria manager noted when I asked if she had any more carrots. “This is the same fruit and vegetables they’re offered on the lunch line. They’re just taking it because it’s free,” she surmised.

I disagree.

I think there are two reasons why the kids happily chowed down on the samples. The first is the group-think effect. At one table, I asked the first two kids if they wanted fruit. Both shook their heads and went back to their meals. But after the third kid requested an orange slice, the rest of the table wanted oranges, including the two kids who had initially declined them.

I was thrilled to see Mr. Peters, the school principal — a rock star at my son’s school — eating lunch with the kids. He devoured the carrot I offered, something that was definitely not lost on the kids sitting next to him. (Just think of the marketing possibilities. Instead of enticing kids to eat yogurt with a picture of Sponge Bob, we could entice them into eating fresh fruit and vegetables with endorsements from their favorite teachers and school officials. A cup of carrots could carry a sticker that says, “Mr. Peters’ favorite vegetable.”)

The second reason my mission was a success: You can’t discount the fun factor. Instead of on the lunch line, the fruit and vegetables were offered on tongs from a silver tray, as if the kids were guests in some fancy hotel. Plus, I was a new, smiling face, cracking jokes and willing to do anything short of sticking grapes up my nose to get them to try them.

I’m certain the newness factor is what one led one kid to try a piece of raw broccoli for the first time in his life. (Woo-hoo! I thought, trying to hide my excitement.)

He popped it in his mouth and made a face.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Tastes like pebbles,” he responded.

OK, maybe not a total victory, but the point is he tried it. And maybe the next time it’s offered — perhaps some melted cheese would do the trick — he’ll ask for seconds.

Exhausted and hungry, I kissed my son good-bye and asked my boss if I could take a grilled cheese sandwich to go.

“Sorry,” she reported. “I just sold the last one.”

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Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at or contact her at [email protected]
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