Walking into the high school entryway, the cafeteria is the first thing students, staff, and visitors see. The tile is covered with freshly placed Potosi-designed lunch tables and a trophy case with a floating countertop. This has been paired with a small brick wall showcasing a large Potosi “P” with an arrow through, above a small waiting area of leather chairs. Just remodeled a few years ago, this area of the school is teeming with maroon and gold pride. Along with its new renovations, you are sure to catch a whiff of what’s on the menu for the day, with the echoes of those who serve us every day. The kitchen windows are found open with a group of people who spend their days preparing an essential item wanted and needed by every person in the building: A warm, fueling, and filling meal.

Over One Hundred Years

To put it into perspective, school lunches in America were introduced to the public school system in 1946 when the National School Lunch Act was first signed into law. This document made it possible for students to get cost-free or reduced-cost lunches. Interestingly, before this law, Philadelphia and Boston were the first states to serve hot meals to high schools, as early as 1894 according to an article in Time Magazine. These meals consisted of similar foods still served today such as a heartier main course, salads or vegetables, fresh fruit, and desserts. 

Today, in the kitchen, according to Jen Wagner (the Nutritional Director of Cassville and Potosi) “We have offered way more fresh fruits and vegetables than what we are used to.” They serve the staff and students by using an “offered versus served (OVS)” system including multiple options instead of a line of servers with one option per food group. This created a way for students and staff to pick and choose, within bounds, what they wanted to eat, and it was promoted by the USDA as one of the strategies schools should use to reduce food waste. 

From the late twentieth century to the current state of school lunches in America, the structural changes of public school systems have changed rather drastically. Alterations are taking place all across the country, ranging from equipment replacement, government laws and regulations, staff substitution, and food shortages, as well as what is valued in terms of nutrition from our youth to adulthood. These past changes were mostly a result of bills and congressional legislation such as the  Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

In its current state, Potosi High School, and other public schools across the area have altered certain practices according to these broader needs, but are still serving a variation of the same kinds of meals. The hardest part, it seems, is the school’s ability to serve food that is filling, palatable, and nutritious, as well as financially and governmentally sound, and efficient, while also being sustainable. All of these ideas seem to be of equal importance; however, because of these many factors, no lunch program has been perfect, even if improvements are constantly being made and met.

In the past, what was decided for the foods served was based on the popularity and affordability of what is available for the school to purchase. And, according to Jen, some of what we receive comes from the excess of what other, larger schools buy. “Pre-packaged food is easier, and sometimes we can’t get anything else. Bigger schools trump the smaller schools,'' she said. “An example in our area would be Janesville.” Janesville schools serve around ten thousand students, many more than Potosi. “They purchase in larger quantities; we just get better pricing than they do.” As it turns out, Jen is on top of the financial side of the food orders. She became a member of a purchasing group that has around 72 schools involved, making it easier for these schools to get the food they need for a lower price. Along with her push towards cheaper options for the program, according to educators and staff, she has given the kids more fruit and vegetable options; however, many say they aren’t content with the prepackaged food items being served such as Uncrustables, bagged apples, and sugary cookie bags or chips. Over the years, there has also been debate over the meat and dairy products being served behind school cafeteria walls, which is another topic our head cook touched on. “We recently applied for a big grant with locally processed beef and cheese.” She seemed to be ecstatic about the possibility of serving us kids locally-grown foods. This grant would help in supporting local farmers and there is also something about knowing where what you are eating is coming from, and who was involved. Who wouldn’t be in favor of purchasing food directly from the area? At Potosi Schools Today, one other main concern is food waste. According to the custodian staff at the school, our cafeteria throws away an estimated 1,000 pounds of food each average school week. Upon hearing this information I consulted the teachers of the school on what they think is the main reason and how we can go about making this number smaller. One educator said, “We have had meetings on this, and are working towards a solution to make sure that the food that is being wasted can be saved and served to kids at the school who are still hungry after lunchtime.” Another topic we touched on was the possibility to put in a simple survey or list on the school website or email for the students to communicate their wants and needs with the kitchen staff. Currently, there is no direct way for the students to voice their ideas or concerns about meals they might find more likable.

The Bernie Emler Era

Today the Potosi Kitchen staff is made up of a team of workers including Jen Wagner, Brandon Bierman, Donita Evans, and Pam Schneider. These people are needed to care for the kitchen and the kids every day. Their routines and responsibilities are equally important, and the list is longer than one may think. According to Jen, both Pam, and Donita do much of the work in and out of the kitchen. “They cook the meals, serve students and staff, prepare breakfast and lunch, and clean.” On top of that she added, “They also help with food deliveries, stocks, cleanup, meal orders, vending machine, and a la carte refills, punching in numbers, and the daily task of filling out production records.” Brandon Bierman does much of the same: serving, sweeping the floors, preparing breakfast, and is in charge of the sanitary upkeep of the kitchen. 

Before their time, there was a woman named Tressa, and then another different team in the kitchen, made up of community members you and I know well. A former Kitchen staff member recalls working in the Potosi High School kitchen and cafeteria alongside many coworkers, remembering the atmosphere and kinds of dishes that were frequently served. “We had a good group of women. We all had kids and some of us, grandkids. We were all qualified,” she chuckled. The women she was referring to were a majority of the workers at the time: Rose White, Tara Bauer, Betty Pierce, Sharon Mathias, Theresa Shiftman, and Bernie Emler (the former manager of the kitchen). All of these women contributed to the school. According to one source, Bernie was the glue, and Sharon Mathias would also come in for extra help or if someone needed a day off. 

To both former and current staff and educators at Potosi Schools, Bernie was the cookie-cutter description of a cafeteria cook. As we all know Bernie was the one to go above and beyond, trying to meet the needs of the kids and others working at the school. Teachers who worked then and now remember the friendly faces of that time, and believe that what they call “the Bernie Emler Era” was the closest cafeteria food could get to what we consider homemade. One educator at the school said, “A lot of food then, really was homemade. Everything was made pretty much from scratch, you know, food that mom and dad would cook.” Currently, with the escalation of newly produced laws and the financial distress of these programs, along with what has been, and is currently of value, not only in the education system but in every household, it is hard to say if homemade foods will ever be an option again.

Other than putting the food on the Cafeteria line, she was known to make sack lunches for the sports teams at the school and would make sure they were well accounted for and cared for, something that the current staff is still able to do. “During the flu season, Bernie would make sure we wiped down each cafeteria table with soap and water, and then bleach water” Sometimes though it wasn’t necessary” she chuckled, “but she was doing the extra step to make sure they were clean before the next group sat down.” 

Right now there are discussions being made on new restrictions, and regulations regarding the contents of food that is currently being served. In a public statement given by the USDA this February, they have made known what is to come in the next few years. “This rulemaking proposes new added sugar standards for the school lunch and breakfast programs. It also proposes gradually reducing school meal sodium limits, consistent with research recommending lower sodium intake beginning early in life to reduce children’s risk of chronic disease.” Some additional alterations include long-term milk and whole grain standards. The effects of this on Potosi, if any at all, will likely be minor, however, any sort of change will make it harder for the kitchen staff to find good alternatives, as well as make it easier for the students to dismiss what they will be served. The USDA says that they expect to finalize these decisions in time for the school year of 2024 to 2025. On its website, the USDA also makes it known that there is an option for anyone interested to voice their opinions and concerns about these newly proposed regulations. 

The average US individual, much less the average high school student, is uninclined to be reading USDA Statements or Congressional bills, so there may be some reasons why many people find this topic controversial. Many are too busy to take the time in their daily lives to look for this information themselves and are unable to take many actions anyways, causing this kind of dissatisfaction. Either way, the Dietary Guidelines are updated and released frequently, every five years. This brings into question whether or not these updates are really making much of a difference. 

Nutritional Imbalance & Hunger

For a great many school lunches are the only source of consistent food they receive which is why the food we serve in schools is so important. Hunger and lack of focus in school go hand in hand for many students. When one hasn’t eaten for a longer period of time, in the brain glucose levels are the first to go which can impact one's mood and ability to concentrate. Almost the same effect can happen when anyone, especially youth, is unable to access diverse, whole foods. 

One educator at the school was asked about what they know about hunger in the education system. “A poor diet can affect both the mind and body. Things like fatigue, tiredness, headaches, and mental fog are the most frequent consequences.” These occurrences are ones from inside the classroom, but what about the complex health issues that so many face in later life? Sadly, these consequences fall on more people than one may think. “Around 30 million children in the US rely on school meals.” So what happens when the kids who are in need of fulfilling meals aren’t getting them at school either? The food that they do consume will become part of their dietary pattern, impacting their health in more ways than we can comprehend. Long-term, out of school, these may be the foods they continue to buy. Trying to push on laws that attack child hunger and malnutrition is something our government is hugely familiar with. Looking closely at the patterns we see to make positive changes is what humans are good at. What isn’t easy, is factoring in the adaptability and uniqueness of each one of us. As one teacher in the high school put it “There really is no “size fits all” when it comes to a nutritional plan for any group of people. Each person is different, and has a different activity level and routine.``

In terms of new improvements of public school cafeteria programs there will continue to be new decisions being made on what the best foods, systems, and laws are. Criticism and criticism of school lunches will forever be a common occurrence. Partly because there is always room for improvement, and partly because it is easier to blame and wish for something different rather than looking at how you as an individual are involved and what you are doing now or can do. In any part of your life, it's good to assess yourself on certain necessities such as the kinds of foods you might consume, as well as reflect on how you tend to respond to what is openly given to you. If you are a student or parent, simply reaching out and having a meaningful conversation with a teacher or staff member about what you can do also has an impact.  No matter what the change, school districts and their people will adapt. For now, the Potosi cafeteria will continue to produce and serve well-rounded meals for the staff and students of the school.