'Lunch Ladies Extraordinaire' Keep KP Kids Fed

Those devoted stalwarts of the cafeteria kitchens stood up to the pandemic.

Evergreen Elementary lunch ladies Debbie Ehrhardt (left) and Carmen Carter.
Evergreen Elementary lunch ladies Debbie Ehrhardt (left) and Carmen Carter. Lisa Bryan, KP News

When classrooms closed across the state in March 2020, Peninsula School District’s many responsibilities to its students didn’t end, including feeding them. PSD had to adapt to deliver meals in the midst of the pandemic, a job that fell to a sometimes overlooked frontline workforce: the lunch ladies.

“They have had so many adjustments this year and have risen to the occasion each and every time to serve our wonderful community,” Minter Creek Elementary School Principal Todd Hering said of the Minter Creek kitchen staff. “In this difficult time, they stepped up and served our families and school and deserve much appreciation.”

At Vaughn Elementary School, kitchen manager Mindy Relaford, who is “Miss Mindy” to the kids, said, “Our job completely changed overnight. Because the USDA approved for all children under 18 anywhere to get free meals every day, one of the new things that we had to do was figure out how to feed them every day, not just Monday through Friday.”

Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the USDA allows school sites to serve free meals to all children 18 and under with increased flexibility, including delivery on bus routes as well as meal kits containing more than one day’s worth of food.

“I care about the kids so much that it was easy for me to come up with ideas to adapt,” said Relaford, who arrives each day at 7:30 a.m. to make 108 breakfasts. She and fellow lunch lady Tracey-Lee Van der Berk work together to prepare and deliver food inside the school building and stand outside for families to pick up bagged meals.

“It’s just me and her,” Relaford said. “We do, probably, 300 meals a day.”

Relaford said she is grateful to Katie Walters, general manager of PSD Nutrition Services for helping them adapt throughout the year, as well as the kitchen staff at Peninsula High that has assisted with food preparation, pre-portioning fruit and vegetables in cups and bags, and putting weekend meal kit bags together.

“At times it’s been slightly overwhelming, but we have a great director and she made things happen so quickly and so smoothly,” Relaford said. “The women who work at Peninsula High in that kitchen, because it’s our main production kitchen, have been paramount in making sure that everything has gone so smoothly for all of us out here on the KP. We never could’ve made it through this whole time without them.”

In addition to figuring out how to feed kids on weekends and during school breaks, schedule changes and new regulations throughout the year further complicated the puzzle for Nutrition Services and local lunch ladies.

“We had no kids. Then we had kids. Then we had more kids added. Then we had more kids added,” said Debbie Ehrhardt, who has been working as a team with Carmen Carter in Evergreen Elementary School’s tiny, “two-butt kitchen” for over a decade, where they now prepare 150 to 200 meals each day. “We just roll with it. As long as the kids get fed, that’s the most important thing.”

Ehrhardt and Carter deliver bagged lunches in laundry baskets to each classroom door. Kids eat at their own desks, six feet apart.

“Every child gets their own brown bag and everything they need is in that brown bag,” Ehrhardt said. “They get packages of ketchup or mustard or whatever and it goes in their paper sack, and the kitchen provides placemats so the teachers give each child a disposable sheet of parchment paper and the kids put their lunch on that.”

Everything has become more portable, not just food but also equipment. Passing out meals outside all year, including summer, the lunch ladies had to come up with creative ways to keep cold foods cool and hot foods warm. Some foods are harder to serve, like nachos, and are not easy to package and contain within a paper bag. Many of the kids’ favorites, including Italian subs, chicken sandwiches, corn dogs and pizza, are easier.

“Ms. Deb and Ms. Carmen do so much more than just provide nutrition,” Evergreen Principal Hugh Maxwell said. “They care deeply about all our students and families and always do whatever is required to make sure our kids’ needs are met. They are loyal, dedicated, kind and dependable and Evergreen is so much better because of them.”

Ehrhardt and Carter look forward to returning to a newly built Evergreen, currently under construction, next fall with a larger kitchen and offering kids more than one menu option per day.

“We do the best we can with what we’re allowed to do. We love our job and we’re glad to be here. We love our kids.” Ehrhardt said. “They made us a sign that goes above our door that says ‘Lunch Ladies Extraordinaire.’

“The whole COVID-19 situation has been challenging but I think we’re doing really awesome,” Relaford said. “I think we’ve tackled it so well, all of us.”