They’ve been the butt of many a joke in cinema and on TV—Adam Sandler even wrote a tune about them. (Go ahead and watch that video—we’ll wait.)
They’re “lunch ladies.” Or, as they’re more often called today, nutrition professionals or cafeteria workers. Now, you can add “superheroes” to the list of titles.
Friday, May 3, is the inaugural “School Lunch Superhero Day,” so declared by Jarrett Krosoczka, a children’s book author and illustrator in Northampton, MA. Krosoczka is the creator of the Lunch Lady graphic novel series, which features a school cafeteria worker who fights crime with common kitchen gadgets. The books' slogan? “Serving justice! And serving lunch!” They’re a hit, selling 350,000 copies and winning two Children’s Choice Book Awards. Universal Pictures even wants to make a film based on the series, starring Amy Poehler.
Krosoczka tells TakePart his hope for the day—which is co-sponsored by the School Nutrition Association and Random House, his publisher—is that school communities will thank the staff members who are “on the front line of keeping our kids healthy and ready to learn.” He says schools will celebrate in different ways, from asking families to write thank-you notes to cafeteria workers to hanging banners in the halls honoring the oft-parodied line of work. One school, he says, is even having students wear aprons to lunch on Friday. (The School Lunch Superhero Day website includes a number of other suggestions, including an downloadable activity book)
“There are so many awesome ideas flowing already, and this is just the first year of the event,” he says. “Besides honoring nutrition professionals, I wanted to inspire [schools’] imaginations. Seeing these kinds of creative endeavors reminds me of why I came up with this day in the first place.”
In addition to Friday’s special importance, May 7-11 is the School Nutrition Association’s “School Nutrition Employee Week.”
School lunches have been under a national microscope in recent year, criticized for their lack of nutritional content, and in the movement to improve the quality of meals children receive at school, “lunch ladies” have become something of a scapegoat for the problems associated with school food. Cafeteria workers are blamed by some for not possessing proper kitchen skills, or worse, for not caring about what they’re serving children.
But that’s far from the truth, according to Krosoczka. His inspiration for both the “Lunch Lady” series and School Lunch Superhero Day was Jean Cariglia—his childhood lunch lady from his days as an elementary school student in Worcester, MA. After running into Cariglia several years ago as an adult, he set out to write a book series about “an unsuspecting superhero” lunch lady. When Random House published the first book, Krosoczka presented Cariglia with a painting of the character he’d modeled after her. Cariglia passed away a short time later, and at her funeral, there next to her casket, sat the painting Krosoczka had made for her. Krosoczka says he had no clue his painting had meant so much to Cariglia, and it was then that the idea for a national day honoring food workers like her was born.
“If I could replicate that feeling with other school nutritionists with their students, I thought it would boost their morale,” he says.
Stories of superhero cafeteria workers are pouring in on the day’s website. One comment praises Kathie Sardeson of Lassen View Elementary School in Redding, CA, who has become famous with the students for her “Fear Factor Smoothie”: a frozen drink with fruit, yogurt, and leafy greens. And at Sailorway Middle School in Vermillion, OH, cafeteria manager Evie Hess changed things up once she realized many fourth graders weren’t taking fresh produce off of the buffet line.
“Evie ordered fresh strawberries and baby spinach and served them with low fat poppy seed dressing,” the comment reads. “The class scooped up every single serving, and students were asking for more the rest of the week!”
Is there a school lunch superhero in the life of a child you know? Honor them on Friday!
Related stories on TakePart:
Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter