By Alex Bridges -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK -- Cafeteria workers pull trays of hot, fresh-made cinnamon rolls from ovens at W.W. Robinson Elementary School.
Another employee makes salads for lunch while a co-worker cleans and wipes down equipment after breakfast.
The task of feeding hundreds of pupils at the school goes on every day. But recently the entire Shenandoah County Public Schools division earned a statewide award for its efforts to feed students a healthy meal which also includes items bought locally. The division can thank veteran food service employee Beverly Polk, who has nearly a half century of service with Shenandoah County, for the initiative.
Polk celebrates 49 years with the system at the end of this school year. Her longtime service to the county schools, eventually becoming its top "lunchlady," did not go unnoticed by her colleagues and the industry. Earlier this spring the Virginia School Nutrition Association presented Polk with its lifetime achievement award for 2011-2012.
The association gives the award to members with 25 years or more of experience who demonstrate "exceptional achievements in the area of Child Nutrition issues in schools, community, state, nationally and in legislation."
"She's an amazing woman," said Joan Ritenour, manager of the cafeteria at W.W. Robinson Elementary School. "I mean she's here all the time."
"She'd come in early in the morning and she'd be there until that last person was served and that last dish was washed," Ritenour added. "She's special. I mean you don't find people with her work ethics anymore."
As food service supervisor, Polk leads a staff of approximately 60 people.
"And they are dedicated employees," Polk said.
Shenandoah County competed in this year's Virginia School Boards Association Food For Thought: Hunger and Healthy Meals Competition. The county system took first place in the healthy meals category and ranked as a Food For Though Leader among divisions with 5,001-10,000 students. Nearly 30 school divisions of various sizes participated in the Healthy Meals competition.
Shenandoah County created an all farm-to-school lunch menu for one day of the week. Polk worked with students enrolled in the Massanutten Regional Governor's School and local farmers to create the menu.
"I think possibly having the students involved in this planning also was a plus for us," Polk said.
In a recent interview Polk explained the division implemented the farm-to-school lunch menu initiative last year and chose Strasburg High School to test the waters.
"I made arrangements to pick up local foods and that probably was my greatest challenge," Polk recalled.
Organizers planned that meal for late May because students asked for fresh strawberries and Polk explained the fruit grows in season at that time. The meal also included fresh broccoli, lettuce and spinach, she said. Students involved in the initiative help serve the meal that day and Polk recalled asking cafeteria employees to start their work day early because the fresh vegetables required more preparation.
With the success of the program last year, Polk and governor's school students plan to host another farm-to-school meal day this month at Stonewall Jackson High School. Polk said the school asked for the same menu that organizers offered to Strasburg High School last year -- tacos made with local ground beef, cheese from a farm in Fairfield, Va., and some produce, including the fresh-picked strawberries, from an auction house in Dayton. Polk bought flour from Big Spring Mill in Elliston, Va., which the cafeteria used to make cinnamon rolls.
But as Polk noted the school division has over the past several years tried to use some local ingredients in their lunches but had not done so for an entire meal. Those efforts had included using fresh-made sausage for breakfast as well as produce.