PALMETTO -- City Commissioner Charles Smith had a flashback as he stepped into the noisy Palmetto High School cafeteria behind Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant.
Both city officials graduated from Palmetto High, and on Thursday returned to help serve lunch as part of National School Lunch Week, a nationwide celebration of the positive changes in school lunches.
Smith remembers the pizza back then. Definitely good, he said. Bryant remembers much less choice when she graduated in 1966.
"Our lunches were so much more limited then," she said after donning an apron and chef's hat and jumping in a serving line. "I can't see how anyone would bring their lunch (now)."
Improved variety and healthy food options are partly due to national mandates, which, among other things, have required students to take a cup and a half of fruits or vegetables.
"It's gone smoother than we've all anticipated," said Assistant Cafeteria Manager Lori Moffet. "It was hard to know how much to order at the beginning."
It might be difficult to believe that students would be enthused about making healthy decisions, but Food Service Manager Linda Pardy has some tricks up her sleeve.
"It's all in the presentation," Pardy said. "They have plenty and plenty of choices." She puts together plastic bags of cherry tomatoes and throws in some dipping sauce. She prepares cups of lettuce and tomatoes that kids can throw on a taco. She makes sure baskets of apples, bananas and pears are always filled. And she tries to maintain variety.
She's ordered fresh blueberries and eggplant for next week.
When Pardy started working in the district in the early 1980s, cafeteria workers cooked every day. Fresh rolls were baked on the premises. Everything was made from scratch, she said.
Now, Pardy said, most food comes prepackaged and it's up to employees to put their own spin on it, like a chicken wrap on flatbread with a special buffalo sauce she says students love.
On Thursday, students in everything from shirts and ties to athletic sweatshirts eased through the line quickly, without looking like they were in a rush. A couple held hands in the lunch line. A dull roar of chatter filled the cafeteria.
And then, suddenly, the chaos was over. "Like POOF!" Bryant said. The lines were gone. Smith ran over to her, bewildered. They had two more lunch periods to serve.
"I don't remember a line ever moving this quick," he said to her, moving his hands swiftly to mimic the speed at which he passed out food. Both officials looked around at the sandwiches, hot food, fruits and veggies surrounding them before Smith spoke again: "We didn't eat this good."