by Terry Rogers
When Wanda Jackson-Sample moved to Delaware, she initially planned to pursue a career as a nurse’s aide. However, she had let her license lapse which would make that career choice more difficult. A friend told her to look into substituting in one of the cafeterias at Milford School District. Jackson-Sample applied at Lulu M. Ross Elementary School where she was hired, initially, as a substitute. This year is her 12th year in the district.
“I started out working just a few hours a day, filling in when others were off for some reason,” Jackson-Sample said. “This gave me flexibility for my own children as my youngest was just in Kindergarten when I started here. I came on full-time a year later and now have been assigned the duty of lead cook. I love to cook and I love working with children so it is the perfect job for me.”
Jackson-Sample says that Milford is growing rapidly. Today, the cafeteria at Ross feeds up to 450 students breakfast and 530 students lunch each day out of the more than 700 who are enrolled at the school. With the new hospital, Jackson-Sample believes that Milford’s growth will increase substantially over the next few years.
“The best part of my job is seeing those beautiful children come into the cafeteria each day,” Jackson-Sample said. “It is sad, though, that some of them don’t want to go home because they don’t get enough food at home. I have so many kids who come in and give me hugs each day. Thursday is my favorite day because I make apple crisp which is always a hit. One of the things I try to do is to get the kids to try something they may not be able to get at home. Today, we will have baked chicken, collard greens and stewed tomatoes. There will be children who turn their nose up at collard greens, but I always say ‘Have you tried it? Just take a taste.’ Quite often, a child will taste it and decide they actually like something new. If they didn’t’ like it, I ask why. I want to know what it is that makes them dislike something we cook.”
Jackson-Sample believes that comments on social media about school lunches being extremely unhealthy are untrue.
“We encourage kids to take fruits and veggies,” Jackson-Sample said. “We have a bin with fresh fruit and vegetables and they can take whatever they want, even taking it back to the classroom. We recently had papaya and we’ve had other unique fruits like blood oranges or grapples, which are apples that taste like grapes. These are fruits that many of these kids would never get to try at home so we are exposing them to new tastes. We are also extremely regulated by the state and federal government regarding fat and sugar content. There have been things we have had to remove from the menu because they do not meet the guidelines we must follow. We bake most food items and nothing is fried.”
Jackson-Sample explained that because they must cook in such high volume, they aren’t able to prepare farm-fresh vegetables and must use either canned or frozen. However, the staff try to create meals that are healthy and that the children will eat.
“The younger grades are less likely to try something new,” Jackson-Sample said. “They reach for the peanut butter and jelly before they grab fresh fruit or a vegetable. The older grades are more likely to experiment with foods. The sad thing is that a lot of kids don’t get to try unique vegetables or fruits at home so they aren’t sure about them when they see them in the cafeteria. I urge all parents to experiment at home and let kids try new things.”
Marianne Morton, Cafeteria Manager at Ross, says that Jackson-Sample is an integral part of the cafeteria staff. “I have worked with Wanda for a few years and it has been a pleasure,” Morton said. “She is a dedicated worker who goes above and beyond what she needs to do. The staff and the children absolutely love her.”
Jackson-Sample was originally from New Jersey and has three children, two daughters and a son as well as two new grandchildren. One daughter currently works with Jackson-Sample in the cafeteria at Ross. Her son is a chef at a college in New Jersey.
“When he comes to visit, my girls are always begging him to cook for them,” Jackson-Sample said. “He always tells them no, that he is off-duty when he is at my house. A few years ago, he called to tell me he made my fried chicken and potato salad and that everyone loved it. Then he said, ‘it was good, Mom, but it wasn’t yours.’ That made me feel really good.”
Jackson-Sample manages the stress of her job by not letting it get to her. She focuses on providing the best menu items she can for the children and enjoys encouraging them to try something new.
“I say all the time that if you keep an open mind and put the kids first, the best part of your day will be when one of them tries something new and tells you it was good,” Jackson-Sample said. “When that happens, I know I have done my job.”
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