There were several weeks throughout the pandemic where the only other adult I saw during the day was the lunch lady. I can’t properly explain the monotony I felt, (without crying), at home all day every day with a kindergartener and a third grader. Staying home with my young children every day for an entire year is an experience that I now see as a blessing, but it wasn’t so at the time. You know what made it better? Laurie Panter, the Roosevelt Elementary School kitchen manager, affectionately known as the lunch lady.
Laurie is friendly and welcoming, and someone I would describe as a grandmother of the school. A pillar for the school, she’s steady and always ready with food, a warm smile, and the charm that only seasoned grandmas possess. Her job is to feed the masses, and when the pandemic struck, she seemed to just tighten up her apron and carry on.
“I stayed,” she says. “We all stayed. I kept working from day one because we had to provide something. In the beginning we were all scrambling.”
In the spring of 2020, school lunches were made free for all youth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a program that continues throughout this school year and the next one, in an effort to reach more of the estimated 12 million youths experiencing food insecurity. Though school lunches often get a bad rap, a recent study has shown that school lunches can be some of the healthiest meals children eat in a day, and in the worst cases, perhaps the only meal that children eat at all.
It was clear from the outset that continuing the breakfast and lunch programs throughout the pandemic, in our neighborhoods and across the Nation, would be vital.
Making It Happen
It’s one thing to be granted a waiver, but it is another thing to physically get the food into children’s hands and ultimately into their bellies.
“We don’t keep the to-go containers and the plastic bags on hand,” Laurie explains. If they do have those types of items around, it’s certainly not enough for the entire Olympia School District (OSD). Child Nutrition Services had to pivot, and they had to do it quickly.
“Olympia High School is our central kitchen,” Laurie says, “and that’s where all of our food comes from. I have to say that they did a really good job in the office there, and they were the ones who were instrumental in getting us the stuff we needed as quickly as they could.”
At the end of 2020, Paul Flock, supervisor of OSD’s school lunch program for more than 30 years, was named one of the OSD’s Classified Employee of the Year. In the December issue of the District’s newsletter, “Spotlight on Success,” Jennifer Priddy, assistant superintendent of finance and capital planning said:
Paul realized early in the COVID-19 outbreak that meals for children would be critical if school had to close. [He] began quietly buying the supplies that the team would need in order to begin distributing sack breakfasts and lunches. He mapped out where meals would be most needed and most easily accessed. As soon as closure was announced on a Thursday evening, Paul and his team already had a plan to distribute meals at 26 sites spanning the district. They were serving grab-and-go meals, with social distancing distribution, by 11 a.m. that Monday.
The Dog Days of COVID
I was one of the people who showed up that first week, trying to keep some semblance
of normal for my kids and perhaps as an effort to downplay the scariness of it all. My children and I had formed a new routine: play outside every single day, regardless of weather, and walk, bike, or drive to pick-up school lunches. In a world where everything was changing rapidly, even moment to moment, Roosevelt Elementary School Principal Sean Shaughnessy said it aptly, and succinctly, “School lunches are the one thing that has remained constant through all of this.” And if you’re a kid, or trying to parent one, consistency can be a lifesaver.
We were also among the first wave of folks to get a pandemic puppy, and we brought her to the lunch pick-ups too, instead of paying the price of chewed up shoes and couches. Laurie watched our chocolate lab mix, Juliet, grow from a baby dog into a lady dog, and one day she started handing out treats for the drive-thru dogs as well.
Laurie estimates that she consistently had seven or eight dogs that would come along to get lunches this past year. “The dogs really liked me,” she says, grinning. “There was Lemmy and Billy and Puca. Juliet, Willow, Freddy, and Bodie. I don’t know them all, but I do know the ones that I have to throw the dog biscuit to because they’ll take my fingers off!”
Week after week, Laurie was waiting in the drop off loop with food. In the sideways rain, wind, snow, and sometimes sun if we were lucky. When asked why she started feeding the dogs too, it was an easy answer for her. “When people bring their dogs, the dogs are always happy and I thought, ‘I’ve just got to do something for these dogs too,’” she shares.
Passing the Torch
Laurie’s kind words, well wishes, smiles and dog biscuits sustained us this year. She not only fed the children’s bellies, but also their hearts. Her work at Roosevelt, however, is almost done.
“I am going to stay until the end of the school year and then I’m going to retire,” she says. “My husband’s a pastor and we’re big into disaster relief for the Southern Baptists. So that’s what I’m going to do, disaster relief, and sewing.”
Laurie is on a feeding team at her church, Mackenzie Road Baptist Church, that responds to natural disasters. It’s obvious that feeding people is of great import to her, and though she may be hanging up her apron at school, her most excellent work of filling bellies continues on.
“I like to cook,” she smiles, and I like people to eat my cooking. I do the same thing in church. I’m always on the Fellowship Committee feeding people. I just like to do that…”