Jessica: Lunch ladies don’t typically have the best reputation. But meet Cheryl.
Cheryl: I’m the head cook at High School in the Community in New Haven, Connecticut. The stereotypes of lunch ladies with the hair net, it’s not the cutest thing in the world, but we all have to. Serving slop. Smell this basil. How good it smells!
I think changing that lunch lady stereotype can be done. I think I’ve proven that. You can make food fun and glamorous and as well as healthy. I’m not a lunch lady; I’m a chef.
“I’m the assistant cook manager at Great Neck Elementary School in Waterford, Connecticut. I went to Johnson and Whales College in Rhode Island to study culinary arts.”
“When I was a child and I would have school lunch, meals would be covered with gravies and sauces and you didn’t even really know what you were having for lunch sometimes. And so now with my training, I love having that opportunity to prepare things for them that look good. And bring in more fresh vegetables.”
Jessica: And Arlene.
“I’m the cook manager at the Islip High School on Long Island in New York. I get in at 5:00 am. We have fresh produce every single week delivered to us from the USDA.”
Jessica: Lunch ladies who are redefining cafeteria food.
“Rhonda is magnificent. I consider her like my second mother.”
“I never thought I’d be in food service. But I really, really — this is my dream job.”
“I actually like the variety of food here. You also get to try new and different things.”
“Just a little bit.”
“I like it. It kind of does taste like rice.”
“There you go. Told you. I feel like I am helping them move out into the world and they can promote healthy eating. I had to force her to try the sandwich. She’s like, ‘Oooh! It’s blazing!’ Now she wants me to make it every day.”
Jessica: Goodbye meatloaf surprise. These women are using fresh ingredients that students want to eat.
“Arlene Leggio is the best lunch lady in the world. Everything she makes, I’ll eat it.”
“Do you want eggplants in the same dish?”
“She can make food out of pretty much any ingredient.”
“Every school is capable of making changes, every school. Stop with the repeating. Just start cooking.”
Jessica: Changes nutrition experts say need to happen. One-third of young people in America are overweight or obese, and they get roughly 40% of their daily calories during lunch period.
Young people who eat school-purchased lunches are also more likely to be overweight and less likely to grab those fruits and veggies.
I sat down with one person who has made healthy eating a top priority. Celebrity Chef Marc Murphy says learning to eat the right food starts in school.
Chef Marc Murphy: We need to transform cafeteria lunches. We can’t just be serving chicken fingers every day. We have to come up with different ingredients to keep the kids interested, and that is one of the most important things.
Jessica: That is why he is featuring these four lunch ladies on the cooking show Chopped, where he is a guest judge.
Chef Murphy: One of the things that I hope this show really does is show awareness and respect for lunch ladies, or I’d say school chefs. I think that the work that they do every day is just amazing. They’re really scrounging around trying to make good food with not much money, not many ingredients and not many tools.
“I think this show is important because it’s bringing some awareness into a couple different things. First of all, the Michelle Obama campaign, moving kids and getting them to eat better and to actually exercise and things like that. This is an important thing, bringing awareness again to children eating in public schools is an important fact and we have to get better at it as a nation and it’s something that we all have to work on. Not just Michelle Obama or me. I think everybody has to get off the coach and help out someway.”