What’s for lunch?
On any given school day, New Richmond High School food service employees, such as cook Dana Johnson, will be at school well before any of the students even get up in the morning.
Despite the early wakeup call, and the long hours on her feet, Johnson, 32, couldn’t be happier with her job.
“I couldn’t ask for a better job,” said Johnson, who has been working at the high school for three years. “The hours are perfect for raising a family. I started out as a sub when I was hired and worked with the fruit every day. From there I moved up until I started making the main entree. I love everyone that I work with. They are a great group of people and everyone works really well together.”
Johnson and most of the other cooks’ day starts early on Friday, April 11, around 6:15 a.m., because the lunchroom opens for breakfast at 7:05 a.m. and the first lunch period starts at 10:28 a.m. The times for lunches changes depending on whether it is a homeroom or extended homeroom day or an early release day.
When Johnson arrives to work on April 11 she begins by preparing the day’s main entree, which is lasagna.
“I like making the lasagna the most of all the meals I get to prepare,” Johnson said. “It is the most challenging of all of them and is more engaging to make versus just putting some chicken nuggets on a pan and throwing them in the oven.”
Johnson, a single mother of three, begins creating the lasagna by cooking up the hamburger that will be the main part of the sauce, which goes in between the layers of noodles. While the meat cooks, Johnson opens several cans of tomato paste and diced tomatoes and prepares the dry ingredients which will become part of the meat sauce. When all the ingredients are ready to go, Johnson then prepares the large cooking pans by cutting parchment paper to line the outsides of the pan and prevent the lasagna from sticking the sides.
“We are very organized here, with each person having their own section and each cook having their own area to cook in and prepare their dishes,” said NRHS lead cook Sherry Peters. “We try very hard to make sure we have nothing left at the end of the day while still keeping the kids happy and making sure that they have enough options to choose from. We don’t run out of any one thing very often. On Thursday, (April 10) we had about 755 students come through for lunch and another 100 students come in for breakfast.”
Once the meat is cooked, Johnson starts mixing together the dry and wet ingredients into the big cooker where she was cooking the meat earlier. After letting the meat sauce cook together for a short while, Johnson sets up the cooking pans and starts to pour in big scoops of meat sauce to form the bottom of the lasagna. Sheet noodles are the next layer to go on, with another layer of meat sauce to follow. When she is finished layering the meat sauce and the noodles, Johnson tops off the lasagna with a layer of cheese before covering it in a piece of parchment paper and then a piece of tinfoil.
“We have nine total staff members who make the food and serve it to the kids,” Peters said. “There are strict sanitation rules so everyone has to wear gloves and a hairnet as well. We also have two buckets in every sink with soapy and clear water to wash our hands.”
After all six pans of lasagna are prepared, they go into a 350 degree oven for around an hour. When the hour is up, Johnson takes each pan out and tests the internal temperature and then removes the parchment paper from the sides of the pans. At that point, the lasagnas are done, so Johnson stores the entree in a warmer so it stays hot until the first lunch period starts.
“The kids really seem to like the lasagna,” Johnson said. “It is like making lasagna at home, it is just a little bigger than what you’d normally make. After I’m done with the main entree, and helping out with some of the other items for that day, I try to get ready for the next day by prepping some of the items to make it easier the next day.”
When she was done cleaning up her station from making the lasagna, Johnson prepared the vegetable for the day, which was broccoli. After the broccoli was ready to go into the steamer, Johnson helped fellow cook Stacey Ehlenfeldt make homemade pizza, which is one of the students’ favorite dishes.
“The kids really like the alfredo, the chicken nuggets and the mashed potatoes and gravy as well as the dunkers,” Peters said. “The hardest thing is when we get a lot of snow days because that pushes back the lunch menus since we still have to make some of those meals. It just really snowballs at times.”
Once all the items for the day’s lunch are prepared or sitting in the warmers, the school nutrition staff gets time to take a break and have lunch themselves. The staff takes their lunch at intervals to make sure that someone is out in the kitchen area at all times.
With lunch done, the cafeteria staff starts to load up the serving areas with the different lunch items, including salad, fruit, pizza, soup and the other main dish items. When the first lunch period starts at 10:28 a.m., things kick into high gear for everyone.
Aside from making the main entree on a daily basis, Johnson also serves that item to the students as they pass by her station. Along with the lasagna, students get a breadstick and then must take at least one fruit or vegetable, and at least three items total, in order to complete their lunch. If a student does not have all three, the cashier will send them back to grab something to complete the meal.
During the lunch periods, the servers banter with students and teachers as they come through the line, asking them how their days have been going and how their life has been. When the lunch period is over, the servers take stock of what items need to be refilled and make sure to restock them before the next lunch wave comes in at 10:58 a.m. The second lunch period goes by much the same as the first and then it is time for the third lunch period to start at 11:28 a.m.
“Serving all three lunches isn’t too bad; for the most part it goes pretty smoothly,” Johnson said. “The kids are great and I enjoy getting to serve them their food.”
As the final lunch period draws to a close, the gates in front of the three cash registers are slowly closed one by one until just one remains open for the last few stragglers to get their lunch or a snack for the road. Once all the lunches are over at 12:03 p.m., the servers and dish cleaners go to work to clean up their stations and take stock of what is left over. The April 11 lunch periods were pretty active, so only a small number of items were left when Peters went through to count them.
Once everything is cleaned and disinfected, the staff goes about restocking the store rooms and the freezers while also rearranging the items they will need for the next lunch menu. By 1 p.m., most if not all of the staff is finished and ready to head home.
“Aside from work, my family and I really like to get outdoors and up to my parents’ place in Spooner, which is on a lake,” Johnson said. “We like to fish, boat, swim and bike, so I hate the winter since you can’t get out and do those things.”
On May 2, it is School Lunch Hero Day, which is sponsored by the School Nutrition Association to honor the hard working school nutrition staff.
With her day done, Johnson heads home to be with her family. On Monday, April 14, Johnson was back at work bright and early to prepare the burger bar for the high school students.