In a 1994 Saturday Night Live skit that has drawn millions of views on YouTube, comedian Adam Sandler sings a ballad to women who work in school cafeterias.
Sandler introduces the song by saying it is about “a person who, more than anyone else, puts young people on the right path.”
It’s not a teacher or a coach or a guidance counselor, Sandler said: “I’m talking about the person we call the lunch lady.”
He begins to sing as comedian Chris Farley – wearing a pale blue dress, white apron, hair net and brown orthopedic shoes – does an interpretive dance.
“Woke up in the morning, put on my new plastic glove,” Sandler sings. “Served some reheated Salisbury steak with a little slice of love. Got no clue what the chicken pot pie is made of; just know everything’s doing fine down here in lunch lady land.”
The fact is, things should be finer in “lunch lady land,” said Vanessa David, who did the job in Darien Public Schools for seven years.
With more attention and a little creativity, school cafeterias can be places of nourishment for body and soul, David said.
“It’s easy to fall back on Adam Sandler’s joke – Sloppy Joes one day, meatloaf the next day, it’s all the same meat,” said David, a Stamford resident. “But the truth is that the kitchen is the heart of the school, just like it’s the heart of the home.”
When “lunch ladies” are allowed to cook food – not just heat up packaged frozen meals – a student’s school experience can be transformed, David said.
“Food very much is love. The act of making food is love also,” she said. “Kids sitting at the same table eating the same food is a shared experience you can’t have when everybody brings their own food from home. Like nursing is care work, preparing school meals is care work. You show how you care with a plate of food.”
Cooking is not reheating
That’s what happened when she managed the lunch program at Darien’s Tokeneke Elementary School, David said.
“I was a culinary school graduate with grand ideas of what school food should be,” David said.
Luckily, the director for the district’s contracted food service provider gave her free rein, David said.
“We did a lot of scratch cooking and baking, making food for teachers, and teaching kids about food,” she said. “Schools are so multicultural – it’s an opportunity for kids to learn about other kids just by learning what they eat. It’s an opportunity to show kids some things.”
And it’s an opportunity for “lunch ladies” to teach food literacy, David said.
The Tokeneke menu, for example, included nachos served with a spicy cheese sauce. Mexican restaurants often serve slices of raw radish “to calm the fire in your mouth,” David said.
“I went out to the tables with radishes and asked, ‘Who wants one?’ Kids raised their hands. It became a competition to get a radish. They loved them,” she said. “After that we had radish slices on the line every day.”
Roasted, not steamed
Vegetables taste better roasted than steamed, which is how school cafeterias often serve them, so the “lunch ladies” switched it up, David said.
“We roasted cauliflower and broccoli, and the kids ate it. I learned that if we interacted with them, kids would trust us and try new things,” David said. “I bought stickers that said, ‘I tried it.’ I found out that kids will eat just about anything for a sticker.”
Things got creative in the kitchen. A peach bread didn’t turn out as planned, so the staff made French toast out of it, David said.
“The kids loved it,” she said.
One elementary student liked the staff’s chicken noodle soup so much that he asked repeatedly for the recipe.
“We weren’t cooking with recipes. We were cooking with our hearts. So it was hard to write it down,” David said.
A pandemic punch
But, just as the staff was innovating in the kitchen and kids were “eating good things,” COVID-19 struck, David said. After March 2020, kids were at home, learning remotely.
“We spent the rest of that school year handing out bag lunches” to kids who needed them, she said. “We handed out 75 to 100 a day.” Even in Darien, one of the wealthiest towns in Connecticut, “there’s a lot of food insecurity,” David said.
In the 2020-21 school year, the district switched to another food service contractor. That company had a different approach to school food, she said.
“They had us doing a lot of stuff out of boxes, just heating up frozen food,” David said. “We had been making soup from scratch and then we were told we couldn’t do it any more. It took a toll on me. It wasn’t feeding my soul any more. To me, food is about love and sharing. There’s no care in taking food out of a box.”
Last December, David quit.
“It was awesome while it lasted,” she said. “It broke my heart to leave. I felt school lunch was my contribution to the world.”
She also felt that she couldn’t just walk away, because her experience as a “lunch lady” was deeply personal.
David, who worked in theater for 20 years as an actor, stage manager and playwright, had her life interrupted when her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
David and her husband cared for her mother for seven challenging years before she died. Those years sapped her energy and left her feeling broken, David said.
Food drew her out of depression.
“I don’t know why, but the need to cook came out of me,” she said. “I started making dinners and having friends over. I was rebuilding a social life.”
A shot of barbecue sauce
At 38, she enrolled in the one-year culinary program at Norwalk Community College.
“It was a very good program, and a ton of fun being with young people,” she said.
Once she got the job with Darien Public Schools, being with even younger people was fun, too. Beyond that, David had an affinity for lunch ladies.
It’s because of something that happened in the 1980s, when she was an eighth-grader at Turn of River Middle School in Stamford.
One day in the cafeteria, a classmate squirted barbecue sauce in her eye. David ran into the kitchen to wash it out, and met a woman on the staff.
“It was painful and I was angry. She was sympathetic. She said, ‘Why did that girl do that to you?’” David said. “You don’t get a lot of love in middle school; they are difficult years. Her concern and care meant a lot to me, and I never forgot it.”
So, after she ended her own lunch lady career one year ago, David, who has written a number of short plays that were published, began writing a book.
The title came from a Tokeneke kindergartener.
“I know ‘lunch lady’ is a derogatory term. To me, it isn’t, but I met a kid who came up with a better one,” she said. “I went into his classroom with a cart loaded with food one day and he said, ‘Look at the lunch teacher!’ I almost cried. He had never spent time in the cafeteria, never stood in line with a tray. He didn’t know ‘lunch lady.’ He knew ‘teacher.’”
Her book, “The Lunch Teacher,” is written. David now is working to get it published.
“I have six rejections so far, but the ‘Harry Potter’ author [J.K. Rowling] had 13 rejections, so maybe I’m doing OK,” David said.
There’s been a lot of talk about school food in recent years, but “they leave the workers out of the conversation,” David said.
“Lunch ladies are unseen, and for the most part unappreciated,” she said. “I don’t know how many people want to hear the story of a common woman, but I think it’s important for lunch ladies across the country to be recognized and celebrated.”