Dieringer School District provides students with the full meal deal

Lake Tapps Elementary School students Katarina, Hannah, Alex and Emily have a few things in common: they’re in third grade and they enjoy washing lunch tables.

Danna Ohman shares lunchtime conversations Jan. 21 with Lake Tapps Elementary students Drew Engstrom and Jason Miller Sermeno.

Lake Tapps Elementary School students Katarina, Hannah, Alex and Emily have a few things in common: they’re in third grade and they enjoy washing lunch tables.

But there’s one more commonality they share – along with 200 other LTES students: they know they’ll be called by their first names – not student numbers – when they purchase school hot lunches.

“We really believe in calling the students by their names,” said Carol Trudeau, Dieringer School District’s director of food services. “It’s much quicker than giving me their student number. We can put it in the computer real quick; although September is a challenge with the new students. Occasionally, a student gives the wrong name – but we catch on.”

That mantra of respect and service is the backbone for each of the district’s food service personnel, who together serve approximately 600 lunches Monday through Friday between LTES, Dieringer Heights Elementary and North Tapps Middle School. Under Trudeau’s leadership, each kitchen staff employee strives to offer their best effort.

“I’ve just got the best gals,” Trudeau said. “They are very dedicated and excellent. I can’t say enough about them. It wouldn’t run well without them. They are so good – they’ve got the right attitudes, they like what they’re doing and they like the kids.”

Trudeau’s affection and loyalty toward her co-workers run parallel with her interaction for each of the students.

“We believe in smiling at the children,” she said. “Maybe one of those kids might be having a bad day. Then, someone smiles at them and – oh, my goodness!”

There were plenty of smiles on a recent Wednesday when 221 students formed a hot lunch line that snaked around two gym walls, through a back door and onto LTE’s playground.

“When we have “Brunch for Lunch” that line will be even longer,” Trudeau said. She referred to the district’s bi-weekly treats that might include either hot waffles with strawberries or cinnamon French toast, along with a choice of juice, fruit and milk.

“They just love that meal,” she said. “I see a lot of kids buying on those days.”

Principal Connie GeRoy agreed. “Brunch for lunch? Always a popular day!”

Serving hot lunches requires an orchestration of carefully-planned duties. At LTES, Cindy Sump and Becky Bell might start their morning at 9:35 by warming up chicken nuggets and making mashed potatoes and gravy – clearly another kid-friendly meal. They fill the salad bar with mixed greens, fresh baby carrots, a variety of dressings and fruit. Each lunch table nearby includes a dishcloth.

At 11:50 a.m. the first of two lunch crowds forms a line. Sump and Bell quickly step into place, serving hot entrees while Trudeau takes her position at the cash register. With typical Trudeau style, each student is greeted by name as they pass the register. She stamps the hands of those whose lunch accounts are out of money – a visual reminder for parents.

Trudeau said she strives to treat each child with respect – especially when she knows of families who owe money on their accounts. Such was the case when one child volunteered his hand.

“Oh my goodness,” she said. “What a great memory you have – I forgot you owed.”

When the debts run high, she contacts the families and offers resources, including options for applying for free or reduced lunches. The latter equates to a 7 percent participation rate within the district, compared to 30 percent in the nearby Auburn School District, she said.

“Often, our families aren’t aware they might qualify,” she explained.

While the children dined, staff members Deanne Cousins, Julie Hannula and Danna Ohman interacted with the students and kept on eye on those who might try to ditch their lunches, uneaten, into the garbage can.

“There aren’t too many who slip by us,” Hannula said.

She kept the interaction going and turned on her portable microphone. “I’m thinking of an animal…” her voice trailed off. She wandered from table to table, amidst eagerly raised hands. In-between bites of nuggets and sips of milk, guesses were made until one student finally answered corrected.

“We try to do different things here,” she said. “We’ll have a PowerPoint and show their pictures on Friday.”

Customizing the lunch program to engage the students has its rewards, with an ongoing monthly book drawing for any student who has volunteered to wash tables or empty trays.

Payton Olson was one such volunteer.

“I like to do it – it’s not hard work,” she said. “I help out my mom a lot at home, too, and I get to wash the table.”

The incentives often carry over to their home life.

“That’s how we get them to help,” Hannula said. “We try to be positive.”

With a lot of organization and energy combined, the two lunches were served within one hour. That kind of energy is what’s driven Trudeau, 79, to keep working. She retired in 1994 from Auburn School District after a 30-year career, but “got too bored,” she said, and has been with Dieringer since. The mom of six, grandma of 13 and great-grandma of four – with one more on the way – said working with the Dieringer staff and watching the students grow up is a reward in itself.

“There was one middle school boy who came up and gave me a hug – he had remembered me!” she said.

She takes no individual credit for the district’s successful lunch program. “We have such a great group of people,” she said. “They’re so pleasant with the children.”

GeRoy also praised the staff. “It’s amazing that even though they only get to see them for a few minutes each day, they get to know the children and what they like to eat,” she said. “They aim to please. They’re always so friendly to them – wanting to make sure lunch is an enjoyable time in their school day.”

And for Katarina, Hannah, Alex, Emily and 200 other hot lunch students at Lake Tapps Elementary, that’s something the crew will always strive to bring – one name, one smile and one hand stamp at a time.

Reach Judy Halone at jhalone@courierherald.com or 360-802-8210.

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