May 25, 2013

Serving more than lunch

Rachel Brown

— On the back of North Whitfield Middle School cafeteria manager Rhonda Thomason’s bright pink uniform T-shirt is a slogan that reads “Because we don’t just serve lunch.”

A parent who asked to remain anonymous because she didn’t want to embarrass anyone who might recognize the individuals from her story said she was moved to tears when she learned Thomason and the other cafeteria workers at North Whitfield Middle regularly pool their money to cover the cost of meals for kids who couldn’t pay for them.

Angie Brown, Whitfield County Schools nutrition director, said Thomason is among numerous cafeteria workers throughout the district who do the same thing.

“These are some of the hardest-working, lowest-paid people in the whole district, and they do what they do because they love the kids,” Brown said. “They are here to serve and they do it — sometimes when they probably can’t afford it.”

Thomason said all she cares about is seeing the student smile, get what they need and be filled. She has countless stories she could tell. There was the boy who was still hungry after he had spent his money for the school breakfast. He didn’t have the cash to cover it, so Thomason paid for him to have a cheese stick so he would be full. He was happy.

Then there was a girl not long ago who was going to go without lunch after her family got in a tight spot and couldn’t afford to buy it.

“She had told me personally that she couldn’t eat lunch today because she didn’t have it, and I said, ‘No, no, no. It’s not going to happen,’” Thomason said. “We just took care of her, and that happens occasionally. This is nothing new.”

Thomason has worked in North Whitfield’s cafeteria for almost 15 years. The federal free and reduced-price meal programs cover kids from families that are truly needy, she said, but there are plenty of situations in which kids fall between the cracks. Their families make too much money to receive assistance, but because of situations, often temporary and beyond their control, they can’t always afford they food they need.

Thomason said she and the other 10 cafeteria workers at North Whitfield keep an envelope filled with a small amount of cash they pool from their paychecks to cover kids who need help. A cafeteria worker typically makes between $9.31 and $10.50 an hour working a six-hour shift for 180 days a year, said operations specialist Annette Gordy. Most employees have at least a second job.

“It’s one of those jobs your really have to love, and you have to love the kids, and you have a heart for the kids,” Gordy said, “and if you’re in it, you usually will. You’ll make sure the kids are taken care of.”

The school system came under criticism earlier this year after introducing a policy in which students who had a certain number of unpaid meals would be given only a cheese sandwich until they squared up. Yet Thomason said she’s served only one such meal this year, and it was at the parent’s request. The child had used his lunch money to buy something he didn’t need, and the parent said he ate cheese sandwiches all the time anyhow and to go ahead and feed it to him, she said.

Thomason said the cafeteria workers personally know the kids who need help and are able to provide for them when they from time to time need assistance. They never ask to be paid back, she said.

“It’s not a big deal to us,” she said.