CONYERS - Some students in Rockdale County might be surprised to know that their lunches don't come straight from a box to their plates.
In Rockdale County Public Schools, food service workers start arriving as early as 5:30 a.m. to make sure the students have healthy, homemade breakfasts and lunches.
"We put a lot of labor of love into it," said Pam Rosser, cafeteria manager at Edwards Middle School.
Many public school systems across the state are beginning to use more processed products for various reasons, but Peggy Lawrence, director of food services for RCPS, is a strong believer in "real food," she said.
"From a quality standpoint, from a marketing standpoint - you can't buy a better marketing campaign than the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting through a school - and from a cost standpoint, it just makes sense to serve our students the freshest, highest quality products we possibly can," she said.
In school kitchens across Rockdale, food service staff members often make such homemade goods as yeast rolls, cinnamon rolls, cakes, cobblers, salads, pizza and other items to serve at breakfast, lunch and during after-school snack time.
"Lots of (the students) think we just open a box and throw it on a pan, but it does not happen that way," Rosser said.
Even around holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, staffs make special meals like turkey and dressing.
"I think it just tastes better and fresher" when food is homemade, said Lisa Wilson, who has worked as a food services assistant at Edwards for 10 years.
It also means the food is healthier. Just because students are being served pizza and sweets doesn't mean it's bad for them. Many of the foods include whole grains, have reduced sugar or are baked instead of fried.
It also might help keep the employees happy - knowing they are serving good food to the kids.
"Many systems go to the pre-made products because of a shortage of high-quality labor, and we have been fortunate in that we do not have that challenge," Lawrence said. "I really believe that my job is to take care of the people who take care of the customers."
She said turnover is extremely low in her department, which already has employees who are hard-working, dedicated and very knowledgeable about their jobs.
"I think that two things that may surprise folks are how much the food service staff genuinely care about their jobs and the students they serve, and how much training that many of them have," Lawrence said. "Our employees really do sincerely and deeply care about the work they do and, even more importantly, the students they serve. They take their jobs personally, and they really strive to do their best."
In addition to arriving at the school early, making plenty of meals and sometimes serving the students three meals - not to mention all of the cleaning - many workers also participate in such training as food safety and sanitation, marketing, menu planning, nutrition and food purchasing and receiving, among other topics.
"School nutrition is a career," Lawrence said. "It is bigger than just washing dishes or serving food. Yes, those things are part of it, but it really is about nurturing minds and hearts."
Michelle Floyd can be reached at email@example.com.
SideBar: By the numbers
Rockdale County Food Services
Food services workers
After-school snacks served in
Breakfasts served in 2008-09
Lunches served in 2008-09
Milks served in 2008-09