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Lunchtime heroes

Running out of pizza, misplaced Personal Identification Numbers and oven malfunctions are just a few of the challenges that face school food service workers in the first days of school.

"People in nutrition services are the hardest working people in the district when you think about it, who else has a time schedule that they have to meet like food services? When the kids come here, the food has to be ready," Nutrition Services director Barbara Osthus said. "You tell me what restaurant can serve 500 kids in a half hour?"

Every year, nutrition services faces many of the same challenges -- staff getting back into their routine, students figuring out where they are supposed to go and remembering PINs.

"You go through the first two weeks and then we kind of get back into our groove," Osthus said. "I thought it was a very normal start."

The nutrition services staff has had to face a few additional challenges this year with all of the new changes to the district -- especially with the opening of East Ridge High School.

"Of course we want to get East Ridge up and running to ensure that it's a very positive, enjoyable experience for those kids," Osthus said. "They have a beautiful cafeteria, so we want to make sure their food is of the highest quality and nutritious."

During the first week of school, East Ridge had a few problems with running out of a few slices of pizza in the a la carte line, however Osthus doesn't see this as a major problem.

"The students still had the grill line, they still had the menu line, they still had the soup, salad and more line -- that's still seven choices," she said. "So I wasn't too upset that they ran out of something that was a la carte -- the kids still had plenty to eat."

Additionally though, the first week of school has proven stressful for everyone involved with the school lunches because of malfunctioning equipment -- ovens shutting off and refrigeration problems.

"I'm stressed out, I've kind of had up to my limit right now and my staff is stressed."

Osthus said she has been working very diligently to get the contractors and vendors out to repair the malfunctioning equipment as soon as possible since it is making it very difficult to prepare for the lunches.

Additionally, the malfunctioning coolers could potentially cause food to spoil or to freeze if the temperatures aren't working properly.

"We could lose all of the food," Osthus said. "That makes me very nervous.

"We want the kids to have a pleasant experience, and if they're not going to have a pleasant and enjoyable experience in the first week, we're going to lose them as customers -- I hope everyone understands that it's not my staff, it's out of our control; we need the parents' patience and we need the kids' patience."

Crestview Elementary in Cottage Grove has been facing many of the same challenges with malfunctioning coolers because of construction issues.

Fortunately however, the equipment issues have not caused lunches to slow down or delay, however students learning the ropes have proven difficult for all schools involved. Since two-thirds of the middle school students are new, and every student in the district has a new PIN for their lunch accounts, it has been a learning process for them.

"When we're having to look up the PINs and take time to do that the lines get long," she said. "We have this issue every year because over the summer- time kids forget their PINs, but every day it gets better."

Aside from some of the very specific problems that arise, Osthus said the addition of a new high school, and many changes in the district, have proven to mean little added work to her staff.

"It seems like what we're doing is just moving kids around," she said.

Osthus said she has full confidence in her staff being able to facilitate through the first couple of weeks of school until they have reached the point where it is business as usual in the cafeteria.

"It's hard to have this all happening at once, but everyone understands that it's kind of the nature of the beast," she said. "We just have to make sure our staff has the tools, they have the food, their equipment is working and they have the staff to do their job -- I just want everyone to have a real positive experience."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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