Cooking for 600 is no picnic

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By Claude Lewis

Every weekday, Kay Maxwell wakes up at 3 in the morning, showers, has her coffee and makes her way to the cafeteria at Chiefland Elementary School.

In front of her is the seemingly monumental task of feeding hundreds of hungry school kids.

Maxwell along with her team of nine other workers perform the task day after day, week after week, month after month.

Maxwell has been at it for 19 years now and still hasn't lost any enthusiasm.

"I love my job," said Maxwell, who has been manager at the school kitchen for eight years and a worker there for 11 years prior. "The key is everybody gets along and everyone works together as a team."

At the same time a few blocks away, Charlotte Hathcox is busy with similar duties, as she heads up the cafeteria and food preparation for Chiefland Middle School and Chiefland High kids.

"I don't come in at 4 a.m.," she admits. "I'm here by 6. I just love being with the kids. I can't imagine being in this job and not liking kids. This job is more like being a momma."

Each kitchen serves up to 200 breakfasts and 600 lunches a day.

On a broader scale, former CES cafeteria manager and current Levy Schools Food Coordinator Candy Barber said that the 10 schools in the county feed a whopping 6,000 students a day.

All schools are pretty much on the same page as far as the daily menu goes. Last Friday, it was corn dogs, baked beans, slaw and cake. Of course, there is freedom of choice, as salads and pizza were offered as alternatives.

Almost by instinct, a different worker tends to a different course with loving care.

Like Maxwell said, teamwork is of the utmost importance.

"No manager can fix meals by herself," Hathcox said. "It takes all 10 people."

Back at CES, most of the workers are in the kitchen between 6-7 a.m.

Breakfast is first-up on the list, since kids are eating between 7:45-8:05 a.m.

On the menu are waffles and syrup, cereal, toast and fruit juice, to name a few popular items.

Once the breakfast crowd leaves, the cafeteria and other high traffic areas are mopped up as the workers begin preparing that day's lunch.

One grabs cans of beans and empties them onto a tray. Another puts the corn dogs on a tray. Another is shredding cabbage for slaw. Ruth Fitzgerald is loading milk boxes. Brenda Rolfe prepares batter for six trays of homemade pineapple upside-down cake.

The workers perform their tasks pretty much carefree with positive attitudes.

"We're like trained dogs," jokes Fitzgerald.

"A lot of our food is made from scratch," Barber said, singling out dishes like ravioli, macaroni and cheese, pot pies, hamburgers and spaghetti. "Everything is baked - nothing is fried."

All schools must follow state guidelines for nutrition.

"You have to provide protein, fiber and vitamins," Barber said.

That's why vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, green beans and corn are served daily. Fresh fruits like bananas, oranges and apples are available. Wheat is present in many foods including cereal, waffles, bread ... even pizza crust.

Where else could one get a balanced lunch for $2? And breakfast is just $1.25.

"We eat the food," Hathcox said. "How are we goanna know how good it is?"

While the kitchen at CES is relatively spacey, elbow room at the CMS/CHS kitchen is a precious commodity. Quarters are tight, to say the least.

"It's the oldest kitchen in the county," Hathcox said. "Built in 1970."

Still, the show goes on.

After two-and-a-half hours of preparing lunch, most everything is cooked and ready for staging.

By 11 a.m., the food goes to the serving area. Kids start filing in shortly afterwards. The middle school and high school schedules are staggered so there is a steady flow.

Interacting and joking around with the students helps keep the mostly middle-aged staff young.

"They'll test you," said Hathcox, whose mother also worked in the school cafeteria. "They'll push your buttons to see what they can get away with."

Like going to both lines to try and get two meals for the price of one. Or sneaking an extra dessert.

"I can only remember one food fight," Hathcox recalled.

Hathcox has pictures of hundreds of students stuck on the wall of her office. She points to one - Brandon Thorsen - and remarks "he was really special."

By the looks of the wall, a lot of kids wer really special.

When lunch is finally over after 1 p.m., cleanup begins. Each worker is responsible to clean up her own area.

"We don't just mop the floor, we scrub it," pointed out Maxwell.

By 3 p.m. they're done and ready to head home, eat, sleep, and get up and do it again.