Manatee County cafeteria workers highlighted through Employee Spotlight Day

PARRISH -- By the start of the next school year, 23-year-old Kassandra Midkiff hopes to run her own school cafeteria, using her education from culinary school and her experience as a caterer.

Right now, she's a "floating manager," moving among Manatee County schools, learning tips, tricks and best practices from others.

On Friday, while stationed at Buffalo Creek Middle School, Midkiff and the rest of the staff working under cafeteria manager Patricia Thomas had a surprise helper during lunch: Superintendent Rick Mills.

Mills visited Buffalo Creek on Friday as part of the district's employee spotlight days, designed to showcase contributions various departments make to schools and the district. Next week, Mills will join a bus driver on an afternoon route and work with a custodian.

Donning a Buffalo Creek Middle School baseball cap, Mills worked

behind the line when lunch began at 11:06 a.m. Less than 20 minutes later, 273 students had made their way through the serving line and were seated, munching on pizza, chicken sandwiches, corn, peppers, peaches. Friday also featured a special dessert: pie in honor "Pi Day" March 14 celebrating that mathematical equation.

"This is hard work," Mills said, taking off the ball cap and wiping sweat from his brow.

Mills worked in the cafeteria quietly and quickly, knocking down a routine. Grab a tray, a scoop of corn, slap on a slice of pizza and leave it on the counter for a hungry hand to grab and go. Repeat.

Friday was what cafeteria workers call an "easy serving day." Some days, like when they serve spaghetti and meatballs or nachos, are much more complicated than Friday, said 62-year-old Linda Edwards, who has worked in the cafeteria for seven years. She worked alongside Mills during the sixth-grade lunch, telling the students to say hi to him.

For the most part, students didn't recognize the superintendent, only stopping to smile and wave at the cameras gathered in the cafeteria, thinking the celebration was for "Pi Day." For them, the lunch line is about one thing and one only: food. It doesn't matter who it comes from.

"It doesn't surprise me," Mills quipped.

Thomas, 47, directs a staff of nine who serve more than 800 lunches and about 200 breakfasts at Buffalo Creek daily. But the school is also a "transport" site, meaning they prepare breakfast and lunch for Imagine Charter at North Manatee, too.

It takes a lot of discipline and preparation, Thomas said, to keep the kitchen running as a well-oiled machine. By lunch on Friday, the staff had already moved into prep work for next week.

"We have to be a step ahead," Thomas said. "You never know what may come up."

Thomas said Mills was a fast worker and she appreciated his help on Friday. She also said she'd hire him back.

"He got right into it," she said. "We put him right to work."

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.