CHEYENNE – There are a million things to do before the first kids get off the bus. Donelle Stocker is darting from one end of her gleaming, industrial kitchen to the other, sanitizing counters, taking the warm items out of the oven, taking the cold items out of the fridge, lining everything up on a mobile buffet and wheeling it from the kitchen to the cafeteria.
For 2½ years, Stocker has been alone in the Jessup Elementary School Kitchen. It’s been lonely at times, but she has enough work to keep herself busy.
“When they had me do it by myself, I was a little nervous at first,” she said.
“But then I just took it as a challenge to see what I could do.”
Stocker said the work can be challenging, particularly the physical toll it takes on her. This year, she has help. Another staff member comes in around 10:30 a.m., just before lunch.
Stocker started working for Laramie County School District 1’s Nutrition Services 15 years ago. She spent her first five years at Hobbs Elementary, and has been at Jessup for the last 10.
And over time, she’s become someone the students rely on.
“When kids start accepting you as someone inside their circle, someone they trust, they get excited to see you and share with you things about their day,” she said. “It’s really nice.”
This is true for most of the Nutrition Services staff at LCSD1. Often, they’re among the first faces students see in the morning, or a reprieve from the morning class doldrums at lunchtime. And they aren’t the Hollywood stereotype of the disengaged lunch lady, Stocker said.
She knows all of her students’ names. They tell her about their days, their pets, their annoying little brothers and sisters, the funny thing their moms did the night before, the bad grade they got on a test.
“Being interested in how their day went, listening when they tell you about something that has importance to them, it makes them feel important,” Stocker said.
The relationship she’s been able to build with the students has been the big reason she keeps coming back. She started working in the district part-time after being a stay-at-home mom for the better part of a decade, but after one year on the job, she fell in love with it.
Part of it, she said, is a mothering instinct. This isn’t an uncommon refrain among the 140 employees that work for Nutrition Services.
Misty Zumwalt, who works at Prairie Wind Elementary but is moving to McCormick Junior High, said she likes her job because she likes to work with kids and she enjoys playing a role in their nutrition.
“Some kids, they don’t have these foods at home,” she said.
Across the whole district, the Nutrition Services team serves more than 1.2 million lunches per year and just under half a million breakfasts.
But while that number may seem high, school lunch participation is not what it once was.
Shannon Thompson-Emslie, LCSD1 Nutrition Services coordinator, said the number of students who participate in school lunch has been declining, which has a direct impact on Nutrition Services’ budget.
Nutrition Services relies primarily on federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That funding is calculated using the number of meals the district serves. So when school lunch participation goes down, so does the district’s funding.
And when the funding doesn’t increase but the cost of food and employee benefits do, it can be difficult to keep up.
The district has never laid Nutrition Services staff off, but sometimes they are forced to reduce hours, or eliminate positions through attrition. Thompson-Emslie said they’ve probably reduced staff by 20 people in the past decade. That’s a last resort, though, she said. First, the district works with the schools to try to increase lunch participation.
There are myriad reasons why students don’t eat school meals. Stocker said there’s a misconception that school lunch is unhealthy, which she said they try hard to fight.
School lunches actually have to comply with a long list of federal nutrition and safety guidelines to ensure that the meals are healthy, Stocker said.
“People don’t realize the amount of paperwork we have to do,” she said.
Thompson-Emslie said another deterrent can be the price. For a lot of families, even if they exceed the free and reduced lunch income threshold, the cost might be too much for them, especially if they have multiple children.
She said the district has tried to acknowledge this by offering universal free breakfast at a number of schools in the district that have a high population of free and reduced lunch recipients.
Thompson-Emslie said she wants the public to see the care and attention that goes into creating nutritious meals for students.
And they’ve been recognized by the Wyoming Department of Education, too. In a recent audit, they received glowing praise from the state agency.
“You can tell the staff takes pride in what they do, and it shows in the little touches,” one line in the audit reads.
Indeed, Thompson-Emslie said they do.