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Cooking for hundreds

Photo by Brian Hansel Head cook Arlis Kern checks stock in one of the Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary School coolers.1 / 2
Photo by Brian Hansel Elementary school cooks Nadine Wegscheid, left, and Carmen Robinson prepare grapes for a fruit tray.2 / 2

Arlis Kern does not have to go out looking for hungry mouths to feed -- they come to her.

Kern is the head cook at Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary. Along with her staff of five -- Nadine Wegscheid, Carmen Robinson, Rose Middendorf, Lisa Ashbaugh and Mary Schmitt -- Kern puts two meals on the table every school day.

Preparing school meals has changed greatly during the 24 years that Kern has worked in the school kitchen. There are more processed foods today and students from kindergarten through grade 12 can count on a free breakfast, called a universal breakfast.

While breakfasts are delivered to the older elementary school children in their class rooms, kindergarteners and first-graders tumble into the elementary cafeteria before they go to class. They bring their own noise. It is a warm-up for the day which the cooks have come to enjoy.

"It's just fun to see their faces," Wegscheid said.

Kern's job is to make sure the students are fed and that keeps her busy in the kitchen, but all of the cooks see plenty of their "customers." They come in all sizes.

"I know we had one little guy once that you could just see his eyes over the serving line," Kern laughed.

Wegscheid was on hand when once when a student started choking on a chip. Thanks to the CRP and first aid training all WDC cooks receive, she knew exactly what to do.

Different varieties of fruits and vegetables are offered along with dairy products like cheese sticks, yogurt and milk.

Healthy is the word that drives the school lunch program. The elementary school kitchen does not have a deep fat fryer. Instead, the cooks make food on a four-burner stove, in their three ovens or in two large steamers.

Chicken is a common entrée and when the kids eat hotdogs they are receiving turkey hotdogs on whole wheat buns. There are also hamburgers, pizza and polish sausage, chili, Salisbury steak, meatballs and tacos for lunch along with two traditional favorites - macaroni and cheese and spaghetti. Cold sandwiches and salads are also favorite items.

Kern has to think big. On a day when polish sausages are on the menu, six 10-pound boxes are brought out of the walk-in freezer. Kern and her staff are cooking for hundreds of students.

Kern also has to keep in mind students can be allergic to certain foods. Peanut butter brings on a strong reaction in some so the school uses a product called Sun Butter, which mimics the taste but prompts no allergic reactions. There are also students that are lactose intolerant so their milk ration must be altered.

While government nutritionists might have the final say in what type of food can be served, and how it must be prepared, Kern tries to serve up food that the kids will eat.

Breakfasts are free but lunches are bought so from time to time the cooks handle requests. They also try new recipes. Middendorf prepared a bean dish for the kids one day.

The cooks also observe tradition and they will serve different foods depending on the time of year. On the day the Minnesota Twins opened their 2011 season, Kern and her cooks wore Twins shirts and served hotdogs and sauerkraut. Some kids liked the "kraut" but others went through the line holding their arm over their nose.

The food services program at the school pays for itself and the district's 13 cooks are supervised by Sandie Rentz. It is Rentz that handles the ordering, deals with the vendors and manages the budget. The annual food budget is $500,000. Rentz also lines up government grants and subsidies as well. The budget goal is to break even and to do that the students must like the job WDC's cooks do.

"We have the philosophy that our students are our customers," Rentz said.