FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — At 3:45 a.m. every weekday, Tracy Kern gets out of bed excited for what the day will bring.
By 5:30 a.m. she is at Brandywine Elementary School working as the food and nutrition manager and preparing to feed a majority of the more than 1,000 students who attend the school.
This schedule comes easy to Kern who has spent 16 years in similar roles with the district. She began her job after having her four children and was ready to get back out and work. Her schedule allowed her to get her kids on and off the bus, but she still made extra money.
“I never said I was going to grow up and be a lunch lady,” Kern said. “But when I started doing it, it felt like this is where I belong and I still feel that way. There’s hardly ever a day that I dread coming to work.”
She’s worked in multiple schools in the county, including Otwell Middle School for six years and South Forsyth High School for nine years.
Otwell was interesting to Kern because it’s in the City of Cumming limits, and it has a “different clientele” than South Forsyth or Brandywine, she said, serving up to 90 percent of the school.
At South Forsyth, there weren’t many students partaking in school lunches because they were older and the area is more affluent, but it was still fast paced, feeding up to 1,200 students a day sometimes.
Last year when Brandywine opened, it threw Kern for a bit of a loop because she had never worked in an elementary school. She interacts with parents more often and processes a lot of paperwork which keeps her out in the serving lines most days.
“It’s a lot easier this year because I now have the elementary experience I was lacking,” Kern said. “I had no clear idea on how elementary ran until I got here. I actually know what to do this year because I have a whole year under my belt. The transition was easier.”
But last year wasn’t too overwhelming, because the school was recognized nationally as a bronze level winner of the Healthy Schools Program by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
This year, on the first day of school Aug. 3, Kern’s staff was serving cheese and pepperoni pizza to the students. The day is a bit slower for the cafeteria than throughout the year because students often bring their lunch to show off their new lunch boxes, she said.
But the staff still prepared and served more than 270 slices of cheese and more than 120 slices of pepperoni. On a busy day, those numbers rise to 350 for cheese and 200 for pepperoni.
The hit of the cafeteria, however, is nacho day, which Kern said they sometimes serve more than 650 meals.
Other options are offered through the year, including veggie burgers, salads, wraps and PB&J sandwiches.
Kern and her staff must follow guidelines for nutrition, sanitation and service from the county office that gets their guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because of this, she said it can be hard to break the stigma that school lunches are “awful.”
“The guidelines are not something I decide to make up,” Kern said. “It’s handed to me and I have to follow it. We work really hard to make good, nutritious food for the children. We do the best we can with the restrictions.”
Additionally, since the rise in food allergies nationwide, Kern said they try to be flexible and have an option for everyone with allergies. Kern works with the school nurse, who has action plans from the parents in place for any child with an allergy to tell the staff what to do if a child has a reaction.
“I put an allergy alert in place on the child’s account so when their name is pulled up, that alert comes up first,” Kern said. “Our computer system also has an allergen report for what we’re having that day and it’ll tell you exactly what allergens are in the items on the menu.”
Sometimes, Kern said her staff may get frustrated or discouraged because they get overlooked for their hard work. But she remembers the cafeteria worker from her own childhood who terrified her, and strives to be the opposite for her students.
“I don’t want children to be afraid to eat lunch at school,” Kern said. “I want it to be a happy place. Food is fun and can be enjoyed. Someone, somewhere will remember the lunch lady. You’ll never forget the friendships you make with the staff, parents and kids. It’s priceless.”