“There’s your headline,” said Chris Parker, food service manager at Palm Valley Academy. “Not your average lunch ladies.” He breaks out laughing. Then he says it again, in case it was missed.
It’s clear the “lunch dudes” behind the counter at the Palm Valley Academy dish out more than mac and cheese, which happens to be that day’s special. They are cracking jokes and slapping each other on the back. They make shoving large stainless-steel spillage pans full of green beans into the oven look like fun. And it is — to them.
Greg Cominski didn’t take well to retiring after being a juvenile probation officer and subsequently found himself in the K-8 school’s cafeteria not too long after. Cominski said he walked into the interview for the position stating, “I have no experience at all — so I got no bad habits.” Surprisingly, that worked, and he has currently been with the school for the past year. Of the three, Cominski possesses the rawest enthusiasm for being a lunch dude. His excitement and energy rivals that of his customers, saying, “being positive and saying hello to a kid that looks like they’re struggling,” is the highlight of his day.
Javier Torres spent most of his career serving in the military, working as a food service technician. After 15 years in the service, spending time touring Iraq and Afghanistan, Torres decided he wanted to do something less demanding, although he wanted to stay in food preparation. “After getting burned out from the service,” Torres said, “I decided to do something ‘light’ that also entailed giving back to the community.” Torres said one of the most important aspects he loves about his job is being able to provide excellent customer service for even the smallest of customers. “They appreciate it, they really do,” Torres said. “You can see it on their little faces.”
The leader of the pack, Parker, announces today’s special (mac and cheese) saying, they are making 130 pounds of macaroni and cheese that day and they expect all of it to get eaten. “It’s a very popular special,” he said.
Parker’s background was in the restaurant industry, previously owning a restaurant and lounge in Savannah, Georgia. Tired of the late hours, he has found his niche in the cafeteria, where he started working in 1996. Parker said he has seen a lot of changes go through school lunch preparation since he first started. “Kids are starting to see stuff for the first time here,” he said. “Fresh fruits and vegetables. It's offered every day. Kids are more open to trying them or even just asking, ‘what’s that?’”
Although Parker said the industry has somewhat stepped back from the “made from scratch,” preparation style of his early days, he is seeing steps being taken toward reducing sodium and making vegetables a necessary element of what’s offered since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
“The mac and cheese we serve today is low sodium,” Parker said. “Some people liked (the initiative) and some didn’t. I look at it from the perspective of a food service manager and you’re serving kids healthier stuff now so maybe that will last a lifetime.”
It’s clear Parker, Torres and Cominski all are devoted to their jobs on something other than a superficial level. Torres, for serving his community. Cominski for brightening an overlooked kid’s day and Parker for advocating healthy eating. They work well together.
“How we interact with each other, it's like my second family. " said Torres. "I love these guys."
Photo by Amber Lake