It's the first day of school for freshmen at Perry Hall High School, and cafeteria manager Sue Bussey makes sure the new crop of kids gets a healthy start.
"You get three sides now," she tells youngsters coming through her "Deli Sensations" serving line, one of six in the high school's colorful food court offering everything from pizza and tacos to soft pretzels and tossed salad.
Bussey, an energetic woman with cropped, blond hair and a good summer tan, pushes the fresh fruit and downplays the fries. And she explains that each $1.60 lunch entitles a customer to "five components": a main dish, a drink, plus three sides that can include a tossed salad, fruit and, yes, those fries.
Since Bussey began as a substitute dishwasher at Loch Raven High School in 1981, her job description has changed drastically, not only as she advanced through the ranks, but as the school food-service profession, itself, became a sophisticated and highly regulated business with a more demanding clientele.
Back in the day, kids received lunch tickets; now they carry Nutrition Express debit cards. Bussey and her colleagues used to make lasagna from scratch for hundreds; now it comes pre-prepared.
Once school food service was considered part of the cost of educating students, now it is largely up to cafeterias, which can't depend entirely on government reimbursements to meet their expenses, like any other business.
"A school district is the biggest restaurant in town," says Gaye Lynn MacDonald, president of the American School Food Service Association, a trade organization with more than 55,000 members.
While assuming more responsibilities and learning new skills, food-service workers continue to deliver meals to low-income students through free and reduced-rate breakfast and lunch programs. By law, cafeterias must also accommodate children with allergies, diabetes and others with dietary restrictions.
In the ever-evolving and frenetically paced field of feeding school kids, though, one thing hasn't changed: The human role played by the most empathetic and observant food-service workers.
"They're nurturers," says MacDonald, food-services manager for the public school system in Bellingham, Wash. Lunch is "a spot in a student's day where [nobody] is demanding anything. They are giving them something. That's a very powerful connection with kids."
Even as she and her staff provide full lunches and a la carte items to 1,200 students a day during four cacophonous lunch periods, Bussey trains her eye on students in need. She quickly learned, for example, to recognize hunger. "There's a certain look on a face," she says. "I've seen it here. [It's a look] that says to you, `If I could just have something to eat.' "
On those occasions, Bussey alerts guidance department staff who then assist the student's family with paperwork necessary to qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Bussey also remembers how she and other food-service workers helped two Perry Hall High siblings set up their own apartment after leaving a home devastated by drugs. "They're doing extremely well," she says.
Similar tales abound in Feeding Body & Soul: Special Children Who Touched Our Hearts, an ASFSA publication in which veterans tell of children they've befriended, tutored and mentored.
But ASFSA does much more than disseminate feel-good news. Established in 1946, the same year the National School Lunch Program was founded within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the trade organization serves as an advocate for child-nutrition programs in Congress and supports professional development and outreach programs.
"We're no longer cafeteria ladies with hairnets and knots in the middle of our foreheads," says Karen Haghighi, president-elect of the Maryland School Food Service Association and director of nutrition and food services for the Prince George's County public school system. "It's truly a career for people working in food service. The skill level has changed. No longer can we allow people to come in and cook like they cook at home. We have standardized recipe files, inventory control and accountability. Even though school food service is not a profit-making business, we have to support ourselves."
School food-service workers must be trained to comply with a variety of stringent health regulations. Digitally monitoring food temperatures through the preparation, transportation and service process is a constant, adding "another level of complexity" to the job, MacDonald says.
Today's cafeteria staffs also have to be computer-literate to keep track of inventory, communicate with the school system's central office and to conduct nutritional analyses of meals to comply with USDA dietary guidelines, MacDonald says.
In many schools, the grim, institutional cafeterias of yesteryear are being replaced with brightly lighted food courts, some of which feature themes, such as Mustang Galley, at Marley Middle School in Anne Arundel County.