Oakland’s Joyce Peters on “Elevating the Lunch Lady”

Joyce Peters M.S., R.D. is the Network Dietician at Oakland Unified School District in California. We first met her several years ago under contract with the Center for Ecoliteracy for a year long feasibility study in Oakland in 2010-2011.

Joyce happily recalls her first time trying “American” foods, like Sloppy Joes, Chow Mein, canned fruit, tomato soup, tuna fish and cole slaw, in New York City’s school lunch program.  She says, “I wish I could recall my lessons as vividly. To me, school meals are not just a public health program, but a window to how we currently define American cuisine.”

We caught up with Joyce in Oakland, CA recently. She was talking about the calendar (pictured to left) which was published by the Alameda County Public Health Nutrition Services for their Harvest of the Month schools. She told us she had recently given a speech at the California School Nutrition Association Annual Conference, November 10, 2012. Pasadena on front line school food service. She was kind enough to share her remarks with us. Here they are:

Elevating the Lunch Lady

Those of us in school food have mixed feelings about being known as lunch ladies.  We want to distance ourselves from the public image of low wage food service workers who have little say or clue about what they are serving.  Yet, we are proud of being the lunch ladies or men who nurture young minds with healthy meals.  We are the people who manage to feed healthy foods to throngs of students in minutes.  Despite missed or wrong deliveries, sick employees, broken equipment, low budgets, etc., our kids get fed.  And amazingly, despite the crowds of students, lunch ladies connect to kids – they notice the ones that are hungry on Mondays, the ones that are upset, or the ones having a good day.

At Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), we strive to let our community know who we are, what we face and what we accomplish each day.

Here are some tips on elevating the lunch lady in your district –

It’s not just lunch anymore.  Some students potentially eat five meals/day with us – breakfast, lunch, snacks and supper.  More than ever, our students rely on us for the most of their nutrients on school days.


Put a name to the face
.  Post nutrition posters with a message from the manager. For example, quote her belief in the importance of eating breakfast.  Include your employee’s picture and how they want to be addressed by students, e.g. Mr. Smith, Mr. Fred, Freddie. (See a copy of one of Joyce’s posters to the left.)

Directors can’t be everywhere.  At the beginning of the school year, encourage employees to attend the faculty meetings to deliver department news.  This introduces them to new staff and establishes early on who takes ownership of the cafeteria.

Choose an Employee of the Month.  Let the school know that one of their food service workers is being recognized by Nutrition Services.  Inform the principal and teaching staff.  Place an announcement where students will see it.

Offer tours of your kitchen to secondary students.  Show them that kitchens are run by professionals trained in food safety and preparation.  Tell them about HACCP plans, school meal laws, how food is ordered (math and computer skills necessary) and all the “nuts and bolts” of running a food business.

Train the trainer.  If your staff understands the “whys” along with the procedure, they are better able to explain it to their community.  In the school’s view, they are the experts.  Keep training topics like nutrition education consistent and short.  Regular nutrition education on fiber, salt and sugar provides talking points that staff can share at their schools.  This year’s lunch meal changes were easier to grasp when employees already knew “my plate” and the reasons to promote fruits and vegetables.  Linking the school lunch tray to “my plate” is a bridge to classroom instruction.

Let lunch ladies shine. 

  • We promote breakfast through the School Nutrition Association breakfast art contest.  Winners are given certificates signed by their own lunch lady.  Since food service workers rarely sign certificates, I’ve seen nervous managers’ hands shake when signing one.  When we do promotions, we involve the lunch ladies in presenting prizes.  We know that children will treasure it more because it’s from a school celebrity and it brings lunch ladies out of the kitchen into assemblies.
  • One of our popular promotions is the lucky book give-away.  When students find an “Oakland Eats Garden Fresh” sticker under the vegetable dish, food service workers reward them with a nutrition-related storybook.


Highlight your cooking skills.
  Show that it is not lack of cooking skills that is keeping us from doing more scratch cooking.

  • This year Donnie Barclift, OUSD Food Service Supervisor, (pictured to the left) won the Rachel Ray’s Yum-O Healthy School Lunch Contest for his Pozole con Pescado, Melon Medley entry.
  • An OUSD team of food service managers recently placed 3rd in the Chop-Ed contest at the California School Nutrition Association.
  • Catering school meetings is great advertising for our employees.  It is good public relations, a revenue source and a way to provide more hours for our staff.

Promote the concept that a healthy staff models healthy behavior.  We promote fruits and vegetables by providing our staff vegetable plants each spring.  We also introduce unusual local produce at managers’ meetings through taste tests.  We also teach the importance of physical activity and ways of handling stress.

Bring in community partners to train employees.  Oakland Unified School District is an urban school district in the Bay Area where there are many organizations involved in improving school food.  These include: County Public Health nutritionists who provide nutrition and garden education, the California Alliance for Family Farmers which promotes local sourcing and the Center for Ecoliteracy which has taught staff new ways of thinking about school lunch. The more outside agencies that interact with food service staff, the more likely they are to see lunch ladies as allies not impediments to progress.  And the more likely, lunch ladies will see that their jobs have impacts outside their cafeterias.

Finally, don’t assume that people know about all your good work.  You need to make it clear that we are aware of the public’s concerns and even anticipate trends.  In today’s internet environment, bad news travels fast.  We know that one unhappy customer has a multiplier effect.  An informed staff can counter criticisms of your program as soon as possible especially when it is based on wrong information or hearsay.    Remind adults that regardless of their opinion, it is important to avoid criticizing school meals in front of students who may not have other options available to them.  We want to correct problems but don’t ever want students to be ashamed of liking the food.

We cannot let others frame our image or only be noticed when things go wrong; to elevate lunch ladies and men, help them find their voice.

Please share your ideas with us or let us know if you want more information, joyce.peters@ousd.k12.ca.us

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