To Serve, With Love


Yes, the Lunch Ladies still wear hairnets.

Miss Mary, Miss Paula and Miss Thelma are at their stations in the Middlesex Elementary School cafeteria in Essex, serving up another intimate lunch for almost 300.

Miss Paula dishes up the food. Miss Mary -- the 40-year-old ruler of this domain -- rings up the pizza slices, hamburgers and cartons of milk. She is a self-proclaimed second mother to Middlesex students, scanning trays for vegetables and milk, scanning faces for frowns and pouts.

For Mary Hughes, the debate in Congress over the future size and shape of the school lunch program isn't about block grants to states or cutting the federal deficit or eliminating costly entitlements. It's about whether the kids at this eastern Baltimore County school get enough to eat each day. And Miss Mary is out to see that they do.

"When people ask me how many kids I have, I say 606," she says, referring to the high end of Middlesex enrollment, currently at 570. "I do consider these kids my kids. Sometimes, the two meals they get here are the only two meals they're going to get that day."

She is suspicious of politicians like House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who recently advocated handing over responsibility for the school lunch program to the states by noting that the Declaration of Independence guarantees the pursuit of happiness -- not a free lunch.

"I'd like to get Newt Gingrich in my cafeteria for half an hour," she says. "I could straighten him out."

The Middlesex cafeteria is a comforting place for those who believe the world has changed too much in the last 30 years.

Green walls. Long white tables with attached benches. An upright piano in the corner, with a tagboard sign: "Hands off." Children's bright drawings taped to the cinder-block walls.

At lunch time, the high-pitched, excited voices of kids bounce off those walls, creating the kind of din that can produce migraines in visitors. The room smells of milk, peanut butter and the sweetly grubby scent of young children.

Miss Mary, Paula Hollobaugh and Thelma Sutphin wear hairnets, white polyester tops and slacks, white athletic shoes. Miss Mary has a silver spoon pin on her collar. Miss Thelma's hairnet sparkles with multi-colored beads.

"We hate hairnets," admits Miss Mary. "But we have to wear them. It's the law."

Outside, it is a gray, drizzly day and spring seems impossible. It's a day that almost demands crankiness. Yet Miss Mary, who remembers the grumpy faces of the Lunch Ladies from her Dundalk youth, is determined to smile at each child.

The first wave starts at 11 a.m., with a group of second-graders. Then another class, and another -- a class every four minutes, until all 24 classes have dragged Styrofoam trays along the metal bar.

Of the 570 children at Middlesex, two-thirds qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, although not all take advantage of it every day. Poor children can be finicky, too, preferring sack lunches -- or nothing at all -- to the school food.

50-year-old program

The school lunch program was created almost 50 years ago, after young men drafted for World War II showed signs of malnutrition, and now feeds 25 million children across the country. For years, it was considered politically untouchable. And no one today is questioning that good nutrition and educational achievement are linked or proposing cutbacks in the $5.8 billion that the Agriculture Department gave schools in 1994.

In fact, Republicans say they want to spend more money on the program, by sending funds directly to the states. But opponents say this change could undermine nutritional standards, now set by the federal government, and eliminate children from the current rolls.

At Middlesex, Miss Mary counts on seeing at least 300 children every day. Her warmth is almost as important as the hot food served. And those who don't get lunch come through her line to pay for a la carte items, such as chips and ice cream.

Lunches are charged to debit cards with a magnetic strip, so the students can't tell whose lunch is free. The average transaction takes about five seconds, even as Miss Mary checks the trays, making sure children have taken everything to which they are entitled. Traffic is steady -- no backups, but no lulls.

Still, Miss Mary always finds time for a little extra attention, an endearment or a hello, a compliment for a job well-done.

"You need another nickel for that, sweetie pie." "How you doing today, Ray-Ray?"

She places a hand on Amber Gott's forehead, worried about the 11-year-old since her recent bicycle accident. When tiny Arron Wells marches through with his kindergarten class, she is appalled by his cantankerous expression.

"How come you're in a grouchy mood?" Miss Mary asks, crouching down so she is on eye-level with Arron, whose glowering face bears a remarkable resemblance to a bulldog. She gives him a hug, but Arron refuses to speak or smile.

His face softens as he carries his pizza and green beans to a long white table. Miss Mary is his friend, admits Arron, who eats breakfast and lunch under her watchful eye five days a week.

"She's a friend. A good friend," says fifth-grader Jeff Queen, who along with classmate Joshua Huovinen, is enjoying a free ice cream, courtesy of Miss Mary. The dessert was a reward for getting into Parkville Middle School's magnet program.

Just last week, Miss Mary attended the confirmation of one student, Jimmy Buschelberger. Asked about another child, a bright-eyed troublemaker, she shakes her head and says: "Oh, that's a sad story." A neglectful mother, problems at home.

"The impact she has on these kids' lives is tremendous," says Principal Edward E. Cozzolino, dropping by for a quick bowl of soup. "She has to maintain a relationship with each child in the school, within that line."

How does she learn every child's name? "It takes about three to four months," Miss Mary admits. "But I want to give them the respect they show me."

Some things never change

Some of Miss Mary's kids are picky eaters, using their 30 minutes to denude their pizza slices. Others are adventurous, creating their own special sauces, or finding new ways to eat familiar food. Ketchup on pizza? "It's good!" insists second-grader Anderson Ramlogan.

By fifth grade, tastes tend to be more refined.

"The pizza's nasty," says Jennifer Howard, 11, curling her lip. She has bypassed the entree for potato chips, ice cream sundae and Oreo granola bar. "But when I was in first grade, I would eat anything."

It's attitudes such as these that can make those associated with school lunches a bit defensive. Whether it's the Lunch Ladies, the central office, food services, the principal or the teachers, they want people to know that today's cafeteria food is tastier and more nutritious than what many remember from their school days.

"Choice is important," says fifth-grader Tiffany Hair. "We get a lot of choices here."

Three entrees

Typically, three entrees are offered. Students select their preferences during morning announcements. The information then is forwarded to Kenwood High School, where the meals are prepared.

On this day, the choices are pizza, burgers and egg salad. Of the 319 meals served, burgers account for 167. Pizza is close behind, with 149 slices. Egg salad attracts only three diners, and two of those are adults.

But the more striking statistic is the number of free meals: 228, with an additional 32 students paying the reduced price of 40 cents. Under the federal guidelines, a child from a four-member household qualifies for a free lunch if their gross income is less than $19,270; those with incomes up to $27,380 may receive a reduced lunch. But even the full-price lunch, at $1.50, is subsidized: Each lunch costs $2.70 to prepare.

When the last table has been wiped off, Miss Mary retreats to her office and runs a daily computer program. Even Lunch Ladies must be computer literate now, as handy with a mouse as they are with a ladle. Her program keeps track of every item served. Miss Mary also double-checks to make sure she hasn't charged anyone twice for the same meal.

By 2:20 p.m., her day is over. The linoleum floor has been scrubbed by the custodians. The 16 Formica tables are back in formation. Miss Mary looks around. If money were no object -- but money is almost always an object for public schools -- she'd like to get new valances. She'd like to replace the heavy Venetian blinds with mini-blinds, brighten the whole place up.

"After all," she says, "this is my classroom."

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