By Sue Moore
“I think about food every minute of my work day,” exclaims Maureen Ouvry, director of Food Service at Vicksburg Community Schools. Yet she remains a slim and trim 59-year-old who has been working in food service since she was 14. She will retire April 1 with a record 34 years as a school food service director.
“So much has changed even in the past five or six years,” Ouvry pointed out. “Michelle Obama’s efforts to encourage healthier eating has made a big difference in what we serve in the school lunch program. Her efforts to encourage a healthier America have been significant. For instance, Frito-Lay didn’t even have a whole grain chip to offer before her tenure. Now they sell baked Lay’s, a better choice.
“Our target is to have a lunch meal offering that comes in at 750 calories and breakfast at 350 to 400 with lots of fruits and vegetables included. I often stand by the trash barrels to make sure the food is being consumed,” Ouvry said. “We must remember that lunch is a social time for students. The trick is to get them to eat while they socialize. Kids can’t go through the lunch line without taking a half cup each of fruits and vegetables.
“In the elementary we don’t see any refusals because that’s all they know. The middle school is getting better and at the high school it is still a challenge. We have a ‘stop’ sign posted at the end of the line to remind them to choose wisely. Still, we aren’t going to arm wrestle with a teenager over their choices. We want to make the food attractive and have it be a good bargain with each meal.”
Vicksburg schools have been serving breakfast for 20 years in the elementary cafeterias. It was previously called “breakfast in a bag,” keeping the choices simple. Now it involves breakfast pizza – which is always whole grain – along with cereal, cinnamon rolls or muffins. Tobey serves hard boiled eggs on a stick but it didn’t catch on at the other schools, Ouvry said. She changes the menu every month with the fun one for April being grilled cheese on Texas toast, bananas, barbecue chicken flat bread pizza topped with chicken and barbecue sauce, a trend right now at pizza places.
In the middle school, where students begin class at 7:39 a.m., second chance breakfast is served in the hallways about an hour later. It is a grab and go system, with selections served on a cart that consist of cereal bars made of Nutri-Grain, fresh fruit and milk. They can eat on the run or right where they are. Payment for all foods are accounted for on an iPad with a pin number the student’s parent has pre-loaded. They also accept cash or checks anytime in the cafeteria.
The goal of the food service is to break even while watching the budget carefully. “Which hot dog or apple are we going to buy, I have to ask myself. It’s every hour that we are constantly making decisions about purchasing and watching everything we buy,” she said. On March 15, 498 kids had breakfast and 1,200 ate lunch. It’s all computerized: The system knows which students receive free and reduced-price lunches so they aren’t singled out in front of their classmates.
Ouvry began her career in Vicksburg in 1990 when she was hired by Superintendent Larry Cole after she had put in five years in Parchment. But she started working at 14 with a job as salad girl at Greco’s in the Maple Hill Mall. She stayed there 13 or 14 years and progressed through several jobs, advancing to bus girl, dining room manager and general manager. She tended bar and turned out the lights when the restaurant closed for good in 1984.
“Work made me happy. I’m constantly eating or thinking about food all day long.” She walks several miles each day and lately has been doing cardio drumming in a class at Sunset Lake school.
About 60 percent of Vicksburg’s 2,700 students eat school lunch. Others bring their lunch or don’t eat anything. “If we notice that a student isn’t eating, they aren’t singled out but we make a point to work with the administrators to be sure it’s not a financial need or talk with the parents to try and figure it out.
“The beauty of this is we are a team and I’m grateful to the dedicated food service staff that I’ve been fortunate to work with. Meals are so much healthier now and our staff and administrators care about nourishing the kids bodies with caring hands each day.”