Donning the Hairnet

PAW PRINTS 2.0, The Student Newspaper of North Hunterdon High School

       If you’ve attended school, then you’ve gone to lunch.  The cafeteria has been a staple of American education for as long as there has been gum under old desks.   At North Hunterdon High School, we are privileged to be catered by Pomptonian Food Industry, a recent addition to the lunch room, which has improved the overall taste, quality, and variety of the available meals and snacks North has to offer with the addition of new recipes, snacks, and an emphasis on eating healthy.   Headed by manager and coordinator Keith McCaffrey, Pomptonian strives to bring fresh, quality food to students with a variety of products that rivals any cafeteria around the country.

      Cartoons and movies portray American school cafeterias as dismal, low quality eateries from which tweets trending such as “Thanks Mrs. Obama” commonly derive along with “Surprise Tuesday” “Mystery Monday” and “What’s that? Well I don’t know but it’s weird Wednesday!”  However, the food produced at North has always been varied, warm, and received welcomingly, especially on popular themed days.  With everyday fresh food and smiling faces greeting and serving with enthusiasm and real interest in the people they cater to, it’s hard not to take a liking to Pomptonian.  Therefore, with a curious mind as to what really goes on behind those cash registers, I grabbed my notebook, scrambled some questions together, and went to see what we kids can only imagine.

      My first few steps inside the food prep area brought a rush of warmth and savory smelling meals.   Instead of seeing the stereotypical, messy scowling workers with bowls of mystery, I instead was greeted by a chorus of kindly, familiar faces who beckoned me inside.  Behind the serving counter where people are given hot meals, the back of the cafeteria contains an array of powerful looking ovens and large metal mixing bowls that hum quietly preparing the food.  I felt calm, at ease, and the group of workers surrounding me seemed likewise.  Instead of giving awkward gazes and dull chants of “no not now” I was greeted with jokes and smiles.  One worker chuckled when I mentioned I was writing an article, and joked, “Well I don’t do nothing.”

      The kitchen emitted a warm, clean atmosphere with heavy shiny silver pots hanging above the large chopping table.  Once I had introduced myself to the staff, I noticed the serenity that seemed opposite of the scene I was used to seeing on the lunch line.

      “Right now, were not at our busiest time,” said new manager McCaffrey on how an average day in the cafeteria goes.  Mcaffrey illustrated how the average day begins at six, with the workers arriving to commence the daily chores of preparing to serve students.  While certain jobs were always executed, it matters not who does them.

     According to McCaffrey, the first line of business for the cafeteria staff is breakfast.  The staff prepares by filling up the coffee area with enough water, mixes, and varying sugars and “half and half’s” to service the morning rush of sluggish looking students and teachers.  Next, the daily deliveries of bagels and milk and butter arrive to replace yesterday’s uneaten food and start off the day with warm, fresh snacks.  According to Ms.Olivia, a worker of fourteen years, coffee is by far, the biggest seller, “We can’t replace it fast enough,” she said.   Mornings are the busiest time for the cafeteria staff. The garlic bread is chopped, sauces are mixed, ovens are turned on, and the flow of culinary sciences in full force as the Pomptonian staff alike scrambles to prepare the meals of the day.

      The logistics of the kitchen may seem complicated to an outsider, yet simple for the cafeteria staff, which functions as a team.  On average, around ten Pomptonian staff are on duty to service the students during the lunch periods.  Besides Mcaffrey, the group is divided into general workers and cooks.  The main cooks are Ms. Valerie Kiermeyer and Ms. Maureen Evans-Kelly.  These women typically are responsible for baking, layering, adding spices, and preparing what lands on our plates.  Other workers such as Ms. Felicia Wilson and MS. Bonnie Martin, work all over, restocking shelves, serving meals on the food lines (which all workers do) or preparing side dishes such as pretzels and French fries in the back or plating, which is preparing the plate.  Other workers complete jobs such as chopping meat, preparing the deli bar, or even washing trays and dishes, which is done often.

      Besides the work and the cooking, one of the most curious aspects to me was the relationship between the workers.  Despite the varying recipes and different meals cooked each day, the routine of one work day for a veteran group is more or less repetitive.  However, with the chemistry and relationship the staff has each day brings new laughs, jokes, and chances to interact and enjoy each other which matters even more than getting the first churro.

      Cook Kiermeyer proudly said, “We laugh a lot!”  Smiling as she reflected upon the good times she and her work friends have chatting and joking between lunch periods.  “It helps us get through the day.”

      These words were echoed by the upbeat, positive cafeteria staff.  One worker reflected, “I loved high school when I attended here long ago, and now I enjoy working here!”  Head honcho Keith Mcaffrey also commented on the unity. “We all get along…  there is no “bad” employee, you just need to find the right spots for each worker!”  As the crew worked, you could tell they enjoyed what they did.  Cackles of laughter could be heard throughout the kitchens main three sections, and as I spent time asking questions, I was invited to sit and enjoy a Snapple almost as often.

      One of most common interactions a North Hunterdon student will have, is an interaction with the cafeteria staff.  Having noted that conversations at the serving line rise above doubles or “gravy,” I inquired about the relationship the staff has with the students.

      “The students are so nice and polite” was the response to this question asking about how the workers thought of us.

      One worker noted, “The kids are so polite they ask about your day, ask you how you’re doing and compliment the food.”

      “We do it for the kids!” summed up the head cook, “We love to hear compliments, suggestions what they want to hear… Nobody does this for the money.  We do it for the kids.”

      Another main aspect of the North cafeteria is the transition to healthier, more natural meals and snacks.  When Pomptonian was unveiled this starting school year, they introduced a plethora of new chicken patties, ice cream, sodas, and bakery treats.  However, the emphasis on health was evident.  New day to day features such as the pizza and large pretzels, are delicious, yet grain crust, along with less amounts of salt.

      “It’s all about building a strong base for future eating habits.”  McCaffrey said.   “It started with the Obama movement!  There’s government pressure and health standards to fight against obesity.”  McCaffrey also guided me around the room to observe the various posters and signs promoting healthy eating habits, “In order to remind the students.”

      Another major aspect of the North cafeteria experience is School Bucks.  A hands on electronic way of purchasing and storing credit for lunches.  I asked Keith McCaffrey’s opinion on the device and he raved like a student eating soft shell tacos.

      “There’s nothing really I would change its overall perfect!  Students can log their purchases onto their account, so that they don’t have to pay with cash, and they can see all the items they bought, as well as total money spent and amount of money left on the balance.”

      Pomptonian consists of three main stations for preparing and serving food, using four periods or lunches instead of “mods” students use throughout the day.

      “We’re constantly trying to improve, and I believe we’ve made great leaps toward that goal, we do our best that’s all you can do.”  McCaffrey commented.  “Looking towards next year, I’m thinking about how best to implement a salad bar.  It’d be a fantastic addition.”

      Overall, the addition of Pomptonian has breathed a breath of fresh life into the cafeteria.  With the addition of fresh snacks, new beverages, and with the revealing of a variety of snacks, Pomptonian marks a new era for North Hunterdon.