The Lunch Lady

-Posted by Lisa Simpson. My grandmother was proudly the Lunch Lady for nearly 40 years at Walton Verona High School in Boone County Kentucky. My mother and her sisters went to that same school their entire school careers, when I lived there it was for the big kids- 6th through 12th. Now it’s 9 -12, but that’s only recently- the town has grown exponentially in the last decade- it’s doubled, maybe tripled from 2,450 people in 2000.

She wasn’t a celebrity but due to her tenure as a Lunch Lady to several generations it was hard to go anywhere in northern Kentucky and not run into someone MawMaw knew- she’d fed half the county by the time she retired at 75- a computer system was brought in and she couldn’t quite nail down the details of the new millennium.
MawMaw loved food. My strongest, earliest food memory involves her- waiting impatiently at the window in White Castle in Florence, Kentucky, both of us watching the cook flip our burgers while “Jessie’s Girl” played over the radio. To this day, the smell of frying onions sails me over time and space back to that window in my memory, both of us standing with our noses pressed to the glass willing our sliders to cook faster. She made the best potato salad, the best spice cake, the best barbecue. Her diet defied modern American nutritional advice: If I get to live strong and healthy on chili dogs and biscuits and gravy, I can’t ask for anything more. My grandmother was in Seattle just a few weeks ago, healthy and hungry. We ate our way through the pastry case at Café Besalu then wandered the Ballard Farmer’s Market. MawMaw ate pastry from Little Prague, pizza from Veraci, cheese from everyone. My husband couldn’t figure out where such a little 85 year old woman put it all. I had no answer for him- she had always been like that and I could guarantee that she’d be asking about lunch in a few hours.
For as long as I can remember, MawMaw could be counted on saying: It’s been four hours- what’re we eating? A satisfied tummy was very important to her, and in a farming community, where poverty was always lurking, MawMaw kept change in her pocket to give to kids she knew were hungry. She never made a big deal out of it, never asked to be repaid. Kids would come through the line and MawMaw would just slip money in the till and wave them through- the community was small enough that everyone knew who was in dire straits. Probably, that hot lunch at school was the only food they got in a day.
The problem with small communities- everyone knows you and your business. But that’s also the reward of a small community, too. Total strangers will hug you in Bob Evans because they knew your grandmother. When mom and I flew back to Seattle, two of the Delta SkyCaps at Cincinnati International Airport stopped the line of frazzled holiday travelers to spend a few moments telling us how sorry they were- they had both gone through Rhoda’s lunch line in the 1960’s and 70’s. Mom and I stood there in the whirl of rushed travelers and cried- the unexpected condolences were like a wallop to the temple when you’re expecting a can of rootbeer instead. But it’s gratifying to know how her generosity touched so many lives, how many people will feel the force of her absence.
It’s hard to guess how much lunch money over the years MawMaw gave to the kids, but one thing is certain- when 500 people show up to your funeral, you know you did something right with your life.
And a good percentage of those people came bearing food. At my aunt’s house, the front porch looked like a Buddhist shrine. Flowers, cards, hand written notes, liters of soda, bowls of potato salad, platters of ham, trays of lasagna, casseroles, cakes, pies, cookies, brownies. Food covered the counters, filled the refrigerators in three different houses. We ate huge buffets every evening. Night after night, I sat with an overloaded paper plate and I ate. I thought how thrilled MawMaw would have been to see all that food, every night. “Ewww Buddy!” I can hear her saying with anticipation, looking around, her face lit up and eyebrows raised into little upside-down vees of delight. I ate because she would have enjoyed it so much that it felt like the best way to evoke her memory, to honor her by eating stewed string beans and pork belly. I suspect my entire family was doing the same, even though none of spoke of it.
An anonymous donor, someone who obviously knew her well, has generously set up a fund in MawMaw’s name- so that hungry kids in need that don’t qualify for the federal free lunch program in her high school will be able to have money to get a hot lunch. MawMaw would be embarrassed by the plaque bearing her likeness (another anonymous donor’s generosity), but happy to know her kids were getting fed.

The Rhoda Humphrey Memorial Lunch Fund
Walton-Verona Independent Schools
16 School Road
Walton, KY 41094
(859) 485.4181


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