WINCHESTER — School cafeteria workers can make similar wages working at a fast food restaurant, so why do they choose to work where they do?
For some, it's the regular hours and the holidays and summers off. Another reason is simply the joy of serving students, particularly those who may get their only hot meal of the day at school.
"Always in the back of our head is we try to give every kid the best meal possible," said Michael Logan, cafeteria manager at James Wood Middle School in Frederick County. "Because in a lot of cases that's the only meal they're getting that day."
In Frederick County Public Schools, about 34% of students receive free or reduced-price meals, 67% in Winchester Public Schools and 22% in Clarke County Public Schools. Low-income families can apply for free or reduced cafeteria prices. Schools then receive federal funds for each meal served.
Becky Miller, cafeteria manager at Virginia Avenue Charlotte DeHart Elementary School in Winchester, has seen children come into the cafeteria at the beginning of the week "all but crying" because they're hungry and likely didn't eat over the weekend. That's been less the case since the launch of Bright Futures, a local nonprofit organization that provides meal packs for students in need to take home over the weekend, she said.
This summer, the Winchester School Board approved a 5% end-of-the-year bonus for school cafeteria workers totaling $35,000, which was funded with food service profits from the 2018-19 school year. The bonus was aimed at making cafeteria worker pay competitive with other food service employers, said Laurie Curry, food service coordinator for the city school division.
WPS employs 50 cafeteria workers. They earn $9.09 to $15.55 an hour, depending on their experience when hired. Frederick County Public Schools has 184 food service employees, who are paid $10.25 to $18.82 based on experience. In Clarke County Public Schools, food service provider Sodexo manages the division's cafeteria, but the school division employs the 17 cafeteria workers, who earn $10.25 and $20.12 hourly.
When it comes to the cost-to-compete bonus in Winchester, Miller thinks it's a good effort but it's not enough to competitively hire for the positions.
"If you want somebody that is a professional that comes in and cares about their job and wants to do the work, I think the pay should match, and it doesn't always. In that area I think it's lacking," she said.
Logan thinks cafeteria worker pay is fair, considering they are on the job for only 185 days a year. James Wood High School Cafeteria Manager Robin Dick agrees.
"You really have an opportunity to have a life away from work, which in food service, generally speaking, you don't have that life," Logan said.
Dick has worked in Frederick County Public Schools' cafeterias for the past 15 years. Prior to that, she worked at Shenandoah University for 12 years as an executive chef, but she left to work in public school cafeterias. Just to get her foot in the door, she spent a year as a dishwasher at Sherando High School.
"I wanted to do something that I loved, but still be home with my kids," Dick said.
She also likes cooking for large groups and coming up with recipes that fall within federal nutritional guidelines.
"I like the challenge," Dick said. "I like making the kids happy."
Working in a school cafeteria, Dick said she feels appreciated by the students and staff in comparison to restaurant work.
One of her favorite recipes that she has introduced to the JWHS cafeteria is the chicken bowl, inspired by a KFC menu item. It has corn, mashed potatoes, popcorn chicken, gravy and cheese. All her soup recipes, except for the tomato soup, are made from scratch.
"It's comfy," Dick said, adding it's good for students who might be having a bad day.
All of her soup recipes, except for the tomato soup, are made from scratch.
"We're limited to what we can serve," Logan said, noting the federal nutritional guidelines schools are required to follow. "We really do try our best."
If it was up to Logan he'd have sticks of butter, sugar and flour in the cafeteria kitchen. He'd have salt and pepper shakers on the table and Parmesan cheese, too. He does try to add herbs to recipes when he can.
Janet Crim, a cook in the Virginia Avenue Charlotte DeHart Elementary School cafeteria, started working there four months ago, though she has been working in school cafeterias off and on for the past 13 years.
"I like feeding children. I like seeing their little, smiling faces," Crim said.
She also hopes she can instill lessons on manners and nutrition to the students along the way. The students can be "little food critics," too, she added with a laugh.
Miller, who has been working for 28 years in cafeterias in Winchester Public Schools, originally went to school to be a veterinary technician, but "life [was] interrupted," she said.
As her daughter got older, she began working in the cafeterias for Frederick County Public Schools. She began working three to seven hours a week over the course of five years. Later, she applied for a cafeteria managing position in Winchester Public Schools.
She moved her way up from a dishwasher to a manager.
"It was very satisfying," Miller said about moving up.
Everything used to be made from scratch, Miller said, when she worked in the cafeterias in Frederick County during the late 1980s.
"Things have changed, I think drastically," she said.
School cafeterias typically make some recipes from scratch, such as soups, taco meat and spaghetti sauce, Miller said.
While she realizes she could switch jobs in the food industry and make more money given all her experience, she said she's content staying right where she is.
"I'm already feeding kids of kids that I've fed," Miller said. "Does that not boggle the mind?"