Cast: Renata Kot, Jeanette Mendez, Shital Modi, Maria Radko and Clara Slaiwa — known collectively as the lunch ladies — and featuring hundreds of kids from kindergarten to 8th grade.
Scene: The Culver cafeteria on a typical school day.
Action: Class after class of Culver students enter the lunchroom, go through the serving line, order meals, stop at the cash register and then proceed to tables where they will eat and talk. (It’s loud!)
It could be chaotic, but the lunch ladies are good at what they do and things proceed smoothly for an hour-and-a-half as groups of students enter, eat, clear their trays and leave the room.
One reason that things work smoothly is that the ladies have plenty of experience in their roles. Even the newest members of the staff have worked at Culver for two years. Mrs. Mendez and Mrs. Radko, the two with the longest tenure, started respectively in 1998 and 1999. Perhaps more importantly, all five lunch ladies live in District 71 and have children who attend Culver now or did so in the past.
Most important of all, they genuinely care about the students. “We get to know them,” said Mrs. Mendez.
“You see them year after year and even if you don’t know their names, you recognize them,” said Mrs. Radko.
“When this job opened up, I jumped at the chance,” added Mrs. Modi. “I love the kids. My own daughter is in 8th grade this year, but I’ll continue to work here after she’s graduated.”
“I’ve had children call me Mama,” said Mrs. Kot. “They feel at home here.”
Mrs. Modi and Mrs. Slaiwa work from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The others are there from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Much of their time is taken up with food preparation.
All meals are made fresh daily. District 71 participates in the National School Lunch Program, so there is an emphasis on healthy, balanced meals that conform to dietary guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Selections range from complete packages with entrée, vegetables, salad and fresh fruit to a variety of a la carte items that students select for themselves. The ladies do their own baking and even make their own pizzas.
The menus vary from day to day throughout the month and with so many options, most children can usually find something they’re interested in eating. An increasing number opt for non-meat diets, and the ladies are happy to put together vegetarian combinations for them. Beyond preparing the food, the ladies serve meals, work as cashiers and clean up at the end of the shift.
An average of 300 students have meals prepared in the cafeteria on a typical day. “They are pretty well-behaved,” said Mrs. Radko, “but they can get loud.”
“Some of them look to us for comfort, especially the younger ones,” said Mrs. Kot. “One little boy in kindergarten really misses home and wants to call his parents. I tell him, ‘If you eat your meal I’ll write a note to your parents telling them how good you were, and I’ll give you two Culver Bulldog pawprint coupons.’ They like those pawprints — even the 8th graders.”