Mishawaka High School's Cornerstone: The Cafeteria
Updated: May 18
Food has always been a humbling topic of conversation in America‒ an outlet to connect. From Julia Child's 1960's cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to Michelle Obama’s legislation‒ Let’s Move!‒ a 2010 policy that strove to provide healthier food options to school cafeteria’s across the country, people are always on the hunt to make food more accessible, sustainable, and educational. Food is the cornerstone of American society.
Mishawaka High School is no exception; its cafeteria serves as a centralized environment for students to eat together and socialize together. However, as times change and younger generations come through, more questions arise regarding student behavior in the lunchroom, and the cafeteria’s adaptability when it comes to matters of environmental cautiousness.
The cafeteria’s persistent use of paper and plastic materials can have detrimental effects on the environment. Junior Isabelle Bradley noted that the cafeteria alone was not to blame. She specified that,
“As a school, we use so many materials. We are constantly pumping in and out paper. With plastic materials, I completely understand the appeal because it’s so easy to use, so easy to just throw away when you’re done. But, I think it’s worth it to make the effort behind reusable products like the trays.”
“It’s been ongoing … " acknowledged Mishawaka High School’s kitchen manager, Donna Morrow, “(though) we [cafeteria staff] did have a lot of problems this year, with the backlash from COVID, for supply and demand. We couldn’t get our regular utensils in; we didn’t have a choice but to use paper product(s).”
That said, from an environmental standpoint,
“I just don’t think they [cafeteria staff] care,” said Junior Kaylee Hooper.
"Of course I care,” said Morrow, explaining that, “I have tried to move away from the styrofoam. We’ve gone to bigger boats which are recyclable; they’re cheaper; they break down a lot better … The only issue is, I can’t always get the product in. That’s kind of where we’ve [cafeteria staff] been since COVID. We’ve had a lot, a lot of supply issues.”
“I usually always use the trays and silverware as much as I’d prefer not to because I don’t like to think that my fork was in someone else’s mouth,” said Bradley, “(but) as long as we’re [Mishawaka High School] keeping up with [health] protocol‒which I kind of doubt‒” she trailed off.
Morrow assured doubtful students that proper health protocol is always followed because it has to be, as she and her staff receive unscheduled, drop-in visits from representatives of both the Indiana Department of Education and the Health Department.
“I get inspected twice a year, per school year, usually in the spring and winter. They [a Health Department representative] go through [the kitchen] and they check everything: underneath stuff, the coolers, the freezer, the floors, all of our machines, they temp our foods… It’s always a surprise visit during lunch, because they want to go through (and) see what our food looks like… They want to check the fruit, the salads, the cold, the hot, the storage…all the serving areas, they walk through every single line. They check every single thing… I’ve been the manager for almost nine years now, (and) for the last five, I pretty much, for the most part have gotten 100% (in the Health Dept. checks).”
“There’s like six or seven of us in the kitchen now (who) are servsafe certified. The manager being me, I have to be servsafe certified…”
Being servsafe certified, “That entails a whole book (we have to read), a class we have to take, and we have to pass a test. That expires every five years. If you do not pass, then you are no longer the manager. I’ve been certified for about 12 years...
“At least one person in the kitchen has to be servsafe certified. School City of Mishawaka, they go above and beyond on that. Whomever might want to take the test, they are more than willing to pay you to go to the class and take the test.”
In 2010, under the Obama administration, First Lady Michelle Obama implemented Let’s Move!. Under the legislation, every child nationwide is required to take a minimum of half cup of fruit or vegetables during every school mealtime. Although the law was created to instill a balanced nutrition for every child in school, many Mishawaka High School students see the law as a frivolous waste of food, particularly when they know they will not eat the fruit or vegetable they are “forced” to take.
“We have to always be environmentally cautious, especially because we’re a school that isn’t funded very well. We have governmental funds, but that doesn’t mean we can just throw away food. We should be, definitely, a lot more cautious of that,” said Bradley.
Morrow understands what most students are thinking,
“It is wasting food—and I agree with them [students], always… You don’t have to take a milk, you don’t have to take the entrèe, but you have to take fruit or a vegetable. (Otherwise,) the state will come in and they will audit me.”
“They [someone from the Indiana Department of Education] will just go behind my cash registers and physically watch to make sure that all the cashiers are making sure that all the students have all the components for their meal…”
“We [Mishawaka High School] are offer versus serve, so [students] don’t have to take [the milk or entrèe], but I have to offer it. All students grades 9-12 have to have a half a cup of fruit and/or vegetables.
“Otherwise, it doesn’t count as a meal, and we get money back from the state for as many meals as we serve.
Though the rule is against popular opinion, a few students do see where Morrow and other cafeteria staff members are coming from,
“I don't believe that taking a fruit or vegetable is a waste of food. The staff is kind of just covering all of their bases, but requiring students to take a fruit or vegetable, encourages them to actually eat it,” said Senior and Alltold Editor-in-Chief Maxwell Collins.
Ultimately, it’s a difficult situation for Morrow because,
“My hands are tied because if the state comes in and sees me letting kids go without those components, they can shut me down, and then I can’t serve anybody… That's why I've gone to juices cups this year,” she said.
“The kids like it, and they're still getting their half a cup of fruit and/or vegetables. So, I’m compliant, they’re a little bit happier, and it’s not as much going into the trash.”
To additionally help prohibit such waste, Engineering and Robotics teacher Ben Modlin, began “a new recycling initiative at Mishawaka High School.”
“Recycling has been (a practice) here for a lot of years, and then post-COVID, it really hasn’t started back up,” he said. To start it back up,
“I reached out and got a grant from Earth Charter Indiana. They gave us $15,000 to buy recycling bins and collection devices.”
The blueprint for the collection devices designed by one of Modlin’s students.
The actual, loaded carts.
“The collection devices are quiet (compared to that of a 50-gallon trash can because) ...we [Modlin and his students] are trying to make as little of an impact on the learning process as possible when we collect.
“However, with that, we’ve incorporated into my Engineering class posters of what can be recycled, what should be recycled, and what is trash. Separating that out has been a really big learning curve for my students… Styrofoam is one of those things that cannot be recycled if you live in St. Joseph County… our facilities can’t handle it.
“So, we’re starting this recycling initiative in the classroom, and then our hopes are to expand into the cafeteria so that we can collect pop cans, plastic bottles, and plastic utensils.
“The issue is, the recycling needs to be rinsed out. You can’t recycle mold,” summarized Modlin.
He continued, “To speak on the plastic that the cafeteria is using, it has an impact.”
However, Modlin was also one to specify that the cafeteria alone was not to blame,
“Anytime we [humanity] pull a raw material out of the ground and we make it into something new that we only use once and then throw away, it has an impact…
“So, how do we reduce that‒I don’t know… Moving forward, we’d have to look at what the return on investment is. We should probably look at the business office to do an impact study.”
Modlin’s program is beneficial to the school because when it comes to things that have to be done by choice, such as the choice to recycle and to not liter,
“Our society today is very apathetic, and I think that comes from a place of anxiety where (the mindset is), ‘Oh, well, this is extra work that I’ll probably get judged for doing, so if I don’t have to do it, then I’m not going to, and I just don’t care.’ It frustrates and upsets me,” said Bradley.
Society is also prone to become more insensitive by increased mob mentality.
“I think there is an increasing amount of slurs that are yelled in the lunchroom,” said Bradley.
Freshman and Alltold Staff writer, Trey Newcomer‒ who is openly gay‒ has found himself victim of such cafeteria torment,
“About a month ago I was sitting down eating lunch with my friends, just a normal Friday… I walk(ed) over to dump my tray and I heard something, but I didn’t really think too much about it (un)til the end of the lunch block.
“When we [students] were dismissed I heard, ’Trey is a fa**ot!’ yelled out loud. They [the bullies responsible] took pictures of me and didn’t stop calling me a fa**ot. It didn’t stop for at least three weeks; then they moved to the next target.”
Morrow validated the observed shift in lunchroom behavior among students.
“It seems like every school year the freshmen that we get‒ whether it be from [John] Young or another middle school‒ are unruly. They’re mean; they’re disrespectful not only to students, but to staff. I have seen that become increasingly more of a problem as the years have gone (by), and I’ve been here 18 years,” she said.
In this day and age, COVID-19 is to blame for a lot of society’s shortcomings. To accommodate COVID-19 protocol, Mishawaka High School went from having three lunch periods, to four, and back to three in early March 2022, an adjustment that was slightly inconvenient for students like Bradley who “got used to” their placement and “already found their social circle” at lunch.
“I prefer four lunch periods, it provides more space for each student and is much quieter. The environment seems less hostile and it is less miserable to sit in there while we have four lunch periods.”
But, other students like Hooper, prefer the three lunch periods because it reminds them of a time before the pandemic, “It seems normal.”
Morrow said, “To me, it honestly didn’t really affect us [cafeteria staff] that much. Going into four lunch periods is basically no different than us doing three because it’s still the same amount of students, it was just broken up a little differently.”
But, Morrow doesn’t think COVID-19 is to blame for the behavioral shift of students. Rather,
“I think it’s just the age groups of the kids.”
Bradley agreed with this statement, adding,
“When COVID was hitting… I think that’s when, oddly enough, our [students] social environment kind of peaked.
“...I think that might just be because we all had something in common… We could go up to someone during COVID era and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this whole mask thing is stupid.’ I do think it was that we were able to find a common ground… because at that time, we were definitely a lot more influenced by social media than ever.”
Bradley explained that social media plays a huge role in mob mentality because,
“…In school we’re [students] already put in a position where we conform‒and that’s normal. That's what we do in society‒school is a miniature society…
“With social media, I think it makes it both easier and harder to conform because now with social media, we’ve explored so many different things that it’s not one set path.
“We [Mishawaka High School] used to just have the cliche goths, cheerleaders, and football player jocks, but now, we have a very open LGBTQ+ community; we have jocks that also like art; so it’s such a broad horizon…”
Others, like one anonymous junior, disagreed with Bradley’s “broad horizon.” They said,
“Nothing has changed. Friends are always gonna sit together, from the sports kids all together, to the theater kids…”
Regardless of teenage cliques,
“I think that social media is one of those things that has such a great impact (be)cause it’s so advanced for communication, but at the same time, too much of anything can be bad…
It makes it easier to make jokes that we wouldn’t otherwise say in person,” summarized Bradley.
Her statement that “too much of anything can be bad,” can ultimately apply to much more than just the effects of social media on modern teenage social status, such as environmental cautiousness or lack thereof.
The expansion of the recycling program is not all that Mishawaka High School has to look forward to. The cafeteria will experience significant remodeling within the upcoming summer months, just in time for the 2022-23 school year,
“Our whole frontline will be redone…which will be nice considering I’ve been here for 18 years,” said Morrow.
In addition to those upcoming renovations, the cafeteria and commons have already become more tech savvy earlier this month, following the installation of four new TVs over spring break. The TVs were installed to,
“...allow more attention to things like announcements and other highlights to students during their lunch,” reported the Mishawaka Network.
Though many students are concerned about whether or not the purchase was necessary, smart spending.
“They [school officials] like wasting money,” claimed Hooper.
In the end, cafeteria staff, stereotypically referred to as “lunch ladies,” work hard to ensure that food is continuing to be made available, sustainable, and educational for each Mishawaka High School student.