PITTSBORO — George Moses Horton Middle School Cafeteria Worker Mandy Cheek credits two people with helping her through the most challenging of shifts: Jesus Christ and Bill Withers.
Cheek shares a love for the Christian savior and the soulful singer with her coworker of 13 years, Karen Holden, whom she now considers “like my sister.” Since they met at Horton 13 years ago, they’ve weathered recessions, family deaths, a pandemic and now, staffing shortages.
“Just the two of us, we can make it if we try,” Cheek sang — quoting lyrics from the famous Withers tune — in between student lunch cohorts. “You make sure you put that in the paper.”
Last Thursday, Cheek and Holden served students and staff a Thanksgiving feast, getting to school at 5 a.m. to cook up chicken pot pie, cheese dippers and strawberry cobbler and mashed potatoes and gravy.
Horton Principal Bradyn Robinson and CCS Superintendent Anthony Jackson joined Cheek and Holden to serve the holiday meal.
“It is a fun tradition that our students and our staff always look forward to,” Robinson said. “Having leaders like Dr. Jackson joining our fantastic Child Nutrition ladies to serve the meal adds another layer of this. ... it’s a time for us to come together as one and share our gratitude for each other.”
Across the country, drastic staffing shortages in schools have led to faltering student services, including bus routes and school meals. In Wake County Schools, staffing shortages and low wages led both bus drivers and cafeteria workers to strike. For a few days during the strike, Wake school officials told parents to expect to drive students to schools and pack their own lunches.
In Chatham, though staff vacancies have presented challenges — leading to the creation of bonuses to entice new employees and maintain old ones, along with principals and administrators filling in — the county hasn’t yet had to abandon bus routes or stop serving meals. For that, Jackson said the district owes hardworking employees like Cheek and Holden.
“The real story is we’re keeping the schools going,” Jackson said. “Look at this — we’re back in school. We’re gonna keep it going.”
CCS School Nutrition Director Jennifer Özkurt said the district wasn’t able to serve its traditional turkey meal this year because of supply shortages from its food distributors, but it plans on having turkeys for the district’s winter feasts in a few weeks.
Özkurt said the holiday meals this year give thanks to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which extended waiver flexibility for school nutrition programs this school year — meaning all school children can get free meals.
“Even with staff and food shortages, we were able to share our best from our made-from-scratch chicken pie and baked ham with other holiday fixings,” she said. “Our team rose to the challenge. For all this, I am truly thankful.”
The kids themselves enjoyed the food — with more 6th-graders opting for chicken pot pie than Cheek and Holden expected — and several stopped to thank the four-person team for the Thanksgiving meal.
After a year without the full tradition due to COVID-19, Robinson said it felt good to see students and staff picking up the Thanksgiving fixings again — even if the food was served in Styrofoam to-go containers so they could be carried to each classroom instead of to the still-closed cafeteria.
“This meal is another step that we have taken towards normalcy in schools,” Robinson said. “It is no surprise that the last year and a few months has been difficult for all for a variety of reasons. Having to stop traditions was hard, but being able to bring them back to life has been wonderful.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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