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School food service workers get it done one meal at a time.

Every year in Maryland, 70 million lunches and 24 million breakfasts are served in public schools, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those working in public-school cafeterias throughout the region are responsible for preparing and serving hundreds of those meals to children each day.

Long trip to the kitchen

Wil Ridley of California began his food-service career in the Navy. Ridley came to enjoy mess duty when, for three months, he was assigned to make salads and do other kitchen work. Ridley said he enjoyed the hours and the ability to leave the ship on a day off.

Ridley spent a little more than 19 years in the Navy, and after his first assignment to mess duty, he never went back to any other assignment. He said the Navy even sent him for schooling in food service.

Ridley was stationed at Patuxent River Naval Air Station from 1994 to 1997, where he worked in food service at the base hospital. He was stationed in Florida prior to his retirement. Having enjoyed this community, Ridley moved his family back to Southern Maryland and found a job as a substitute food service worker at Spring Ridge Middle School in 2000.

Ridley said he started at the bottom of the food service chain in the school system, washing pots and pans for two hours a day.

“I really enjoyed it. I had no responsibilities. All I had to do was wash dishes,” he said.

He worked his way up to food service manager at Great Mills High School, where he worked until 2005.

And now, Ridley is a food services coordinator for the St. Mary’s school system.

He still makes his way to cafeterias, but now it’s in a supervisory role as he observes food-service workers. He occasionally fills in for absent employees.

The apron stays on

Joyce “Kaye” Steele of Marbury did not start her work life in food service but instead with the FBI, about 50 years ago, as a time attendant clerk. She left the FBI when her daughter was born to stay home.

She said when her daughter was two, she decided to get a job in the Charles County school system as a cafeteria worker.

“When I first came, I was going to work until my daughter got in school. After she got in, I kept working,” she said.

Then, Steele recalled, she set another goal for when she would stop working in the cafeteria: When her daughter hit high school. But “both kids graduated from their schools … I decided not to go back to the FBI,” she said. And she kept working in cafeterias for the school system.

Steele’s husband has retired, and both of her children are grown and have started lives in other states. “I’m not through working,” she said. Now in her 43rd year of food service, “If I ever retire, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself,” she said.

Regarding her status as the longest-serving food-service worker in Charles County, Steele, 77, simply said, ”I’m an antique.”

Steele began working at Gale-Bailey Elementary School in Marbury in 1969 and, over the years, has worked at William B. Wade Elementary School and Indian Head Elementary School. She is now at Henry E. Lackey High School.

“I may have fed the principal,” she said. Lackey Principal James Short was a student in Charles County schools growing up.

Steele said she has been offered a management position on three separate occasions but turned them down because she was not interested in the paperwork involved.

A family tradition

Renee Neff, food service manager at Mill Creek Middle School in Lusby, also got her career with the school system started with her offspring in mind. Neff, of Lusby, wanted to have the same schedule as her children so she could be home with them.

After high school, Neff got married, traveled and started her family. While she recalled many women being career-focused in the 1980s, she wanted to be at home for her family.

“I didn’t want to go out to work; I wanted to stay home,” she said.

She said her mother had stayed home to raise her family and became a cafeteria worker when her daughter left home.

Neff began with the Calvert school system in 1988 at Southern Middle School. She spent 10 years there and then was assigned to Patuxent High School as assistant manager. She then moved on to Mill Creek Middle School, where she is today.

Aside from her daily duties working the breakfast and lunch shifts, Neff is in charge of ordering supplies for her school and Dowell Elementary School, and handles day-to-day management tasks.

Because she is in the cafeteria kitchen every day and in charge of ordering supplies for two schools, Neff admitted that it’s been several years since she has done the grocery shopping for her family, a task her husband has picked up over the years.

Steele said she still handles the cooking and shopping for her house, and Ridley, not knowing if it’s the food-service worker in him or the military background, plans menus with his family each week.

Chicken breasts to chicken nuggets

When Steele began working at Gale-Bailey in 1969, milk cost about 3 cents for the 8-ounce school cartons. After 40 years of food service, Steele has seen more change than just milk prices. One big difference, she said, has been going from cooking from scratch to preparing and serving premade meals.

Steele said she remembers preparing homemade lasagna for students. She and cafeteria staff had to prepare more than 20 trays of the dish.

Mashed potatoes, she said, were done by staff peeling, cutting and mashing dozens of potatoes. A potato peeler in the school kitchen was considered a time-saver, although she said she found it a hassle to clean.

Neff said oven-roasted chicken was a labor-intensive entree. Chicken parts arrived at the schools frozen, and staff spent two days preparing them, which included soaking, cleaning, seasoning and letting them sit overnight, then cooking the next day.

After all that, Neff said, students didn’t seem to like the oven-roasted chicken as much as pizza, lasagna and spaghetti. The spaghetti dishes, she said, are still made fresh at Mill Creek.

Ridley and Steele agreed that pizza was among the fan favorites at lunchtime. “That will never change,” Steele said.

Many of the meals offered across Southern Maryland schools now are similar, but back when meals were made from scratch, tastes and preferences differed a little more.

Ridley claims that Great Mills High School had the best fries when the cafeteria staff was frying them similar to the way fast food restaurants do. He said the only thing jumping onto kids’ trays more than fries were the homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Ridley said he also enjoyed preparing meatloaf from scratch and that children seemed to enjoy eating it.

Neff said back when from-scratch cooking was the norm, “women were here making homemade rolls.”

The exact moment kitchens went from cooking from scratch to premade meals could not be pinpointed by the three longtime workers; they all agreed that it just happened over time.

One day, Neff said, she walked into her cafeteria and started serving chicken nuggets. The reasoning, she recalled, was lower cost and less labor.

William Kreuter, supervisor of food services for Charles County, said the change to more premade meals was gradual and done for safety and labor purposes.

In the past 10 years or so, schools have introduced healthier options and adjusted portion sizes. Kreuter said while schools were introducing changes gradually, laws such as the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that changed nutritional requirements for school meals, promoted breakfast and encouraged healthy lifestyles were passed to hasten the shift.

Ridley said with changes and initiatives such as the Farm to School program, students are exposed to and learning about more healthy options. He said school cafeterias are thought of in St. Mary’s as additional classrooms that students visit each day to pick up healthy tips to use in life.

Neff said when Calvert County began incorporating more healthy options, she noticed many middle school students not knowing what fruit or vegetable to select because some students had never seen certain types before.

On the tray and out the door

Switching to premade meals, Steele said, made things easier on workers, but the fast-paced work environment will remain the same.

Lackey has one lunch period that takes an hour each day for students, as opposed to the three lunch periods it had a couple years ago. Whether it’s one lunch period or several, Steele’s motto remains the same: “I like to get them in and get them out.”

At Mill Creek, Neff works multiple, shorter lunch periods with only a few minutes between shifts. The schedule is common among schools. For example, the first group of students comes through the lunch line at 11:30 a.m., and that lunch period ends at 11:54. The next shift is at 12:13 p.m., and in the few minutes between, “we restock and clean dishes for the next shift,” she said. The last shift ends at 1:32, and at that time, the kitchen is cleaned and preparations are made for the next day if time allows before the kitchen closes at 2.

“Each school year, students change teachers as they are promoted to a higher grade level, but our cafeteria staff continues to be consistent with excellent service,” Ridley said. “The students enjoy the experience of a safe environment; clean cafeteria; hot, nutritious food; personal attention to service; smiling faces and staff that is genuinely happy to greet each student every day.”

gphillips@somdnews.com