Back To School: Cooks deal with full plate

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Dubois Elementary School cook Mary Sander of Celestine organized items in the school’s pantry this morning while unpacking a shipment of food. Sander, who has worked in the school’s cafeteria for nearly 20 years, said unloading the shipments is one of the hardest parts of the job, as everything must be labeled with the date.

Herald Staff Writer

DUBOIS — The freezers were still mostly empty and all the tables were still folded and stacked in the hallway to make room for cleaning crews, but Northeast Dubois School Corp. cafeteria manager Joyce Hulsman was already hard at work two weeks before the start of school.

On her desk was a bulging folder containing all of the new information for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed by Congress to regulate the school lunch program in 2010 and has been rolling out new regulations ever since.

“I’ve got things everywhere!” Hulsman exclaimed as she sifted through the papers in her folder to locate a certain set of new rules. She has been in and out of her office all summer to prepare for the first week of school. Though she still has a few leftovers from May, each new year — this will be her sixth as manager — brings new challenges.

“You want to do different things, but you want to get in a cycle,” she said of planning her menus, a task she has been sorting out for the past several weeks. “The (government) has changed so much. When I started, I was getting to a point where after a few years, I was starting to cycle it a little more or copy last year’s. If there were things that the kids absolutely didn’t like, then I’d change it a little bit. Well, then they changed  the rules so it kind of screwed up my cycle.”

Last school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which operates the breakfast and lunch programs, began enforcing required increases in the number of cups of red-orange vegetables — including sweet potatoes and carrots — and dark greens — including spinach and romaine lettuce — that had to be served each week. Hulsman said the changes did not come easily to many of the kids in the corporation, forcing her and her staff of three head cooks to get creative.

“As the (students) go through the line, they’ll make comments. Kids aren’t afraid to tell you what they think,” Hulsman said with a laugh. As part of a small, 1,000-student corporation, she said she and the other cooks have become familiar with many of the individual kids they serve each day and have a good idea of their likes and dislikes. In addition to planning and purchasing food for all four corporation schools, Hulsman also acts as the head cook for Northeast Dubois High School.

“They hate sweet potatoes. I don’t care how you try and fix them,” she said. “We’ll do sweet potato fries and we tried sweet potato wedges. That went over better than the fries did. At the grade schools, they like the Tater Tot ones better. You just have to go with different age groups also.”

To get the kids to enjoy their steamed broccoli, a new menu staple since the dark green vegetable rule took effect, Hulsman and her staff poured cheese over the top. Since then, many students have taken a liking to the healthy treat.

“We really shouldn’t put a lot of cheese on it, but I prefer they eat it than not eat it at all,” she said. “We’re starting it out with the high-schoolers and the middle school, and they weren’t used to this (healthy) stuff. It’s harder for them. When the little ones come along, by the time they get up here, they’ll be used to it.”

This year, the newest rules will affect the breakfast program, which Hulsman said becomes more popular each year. The government now requires that the schools limit calories for breakfast meals to 500 for elementary school students and 650 for high-schoolers each day.

“That has to include your milk and your juice,” Hulsman explained. “It’s not always easy, but we’ll be OK.”

She said the healthier food requirements make everything more expensive, and the state has not provided more money for cafeterias. The amount of money the cafeterias can spend each month on food varies widely, but the USDA generally gives schools about 27 cents for each paid lunch and $2.86 for free lunches.

To keep her budget in check, Hulsman keeps her a la carte line stocked so kids can eat some food from that and save some of the rest for leftovers.

“They’re talking about changing the a la carte rules too. If they do that, it may hurt us a lot,” she said. “I try to do as much healthy on the a la carte as I can. I do a lot of fresh fruit. I do a lot of veggie trays. We do a lot of chef’s salads and we use the good lettuce. We do all Baked Lay’s and things like that.”

With the beginning of the school year fast approaching — Northeast Dubois students will return to class and the lunch lines Wednesday — Hulsman is finishing her food orders and getting ready to stock her freezers. The last week before school means cleaning the kitchens and ovens and “hoping I have everything,” she said. Hulsman added that her “really, really good” cooks ­— Mary Sander at Dubois Elementary, Shirley Schmitt at Celestine Elementary and Diana Terwiske at Dubois Middle School — help her keep her sometimes daunting meal tasks in line.

“We talk once a week for sure,” Sander said of her interactions with Joyce. “She plans (the menus), but sometimes she’ll call and say, ”˜Did your kids like this?’ or ”˜Do you think your kids would like that?’”

Greater Jasper Consolidated Schools and the North Spencer School Corp. employ individual cafeteria managers in each of their schools to handle their ordering, menu creation and cooking. Southwest Dubois School Corp. employs Ora Lee Cotton-Ahl as the corporation manager and Southeast Dubois hired Ruth Hoppenjans this summer to take over management for the district.

Contact Claire Moorman at

More on