By B.C. Manion
When Vonnie Maples began working in a school lunchroom, she wasn’t intending to make it a career.
“I started at Pasco High School in Dade City,” said Maples, of Zephyrhills.
“A friend of mine worked in the kitchen and she called me and said, “We had a lady who got hurt. Just come help us for a couple of days.”
She agreed to step in, temporarily.
“That was 27 years ago.”
Sticking with it was sort of a no-brainer.
“I absolutely loved it,” Maples said.
Through the years, she has gone from being a cafeteria worker at Pasco High to being an assistant manager at Pasco Middle, where her husband, Wendell, now teaches.
Next, she was an assistant manager at Sand Pine Elementary, before being promoted to manager. She then ran both Sand Pine and New River Elementary, when both schools were located at Sand Pine. Finally, she took the helm of Watergrass Elementary in Wesley Chapel, where she works today.
Recently, she was named the Non-Instructional, Non-Bargaining Employee of the Year for Pasco County Schools.
“I was in shock. I truly didn’t expect it. They called my name and I just sat there.
“When you stop and think about how many people are in this district, it was very humbling. It really was.”
She loves her work.
“I have a passion for people being happy with what I offer them every day.
“There are so many, many, many kids that this is all they have every day to eat. There’s nothing else. Because I know there are kids that that’s all they have (to eat) every day, I want them to have the best food, in the cleanest environment, with the most friendly service that they can get.”
School kitchens are much different places than they were when Maples served her first cafeteria meal.
“When I first started 27 years ago, we had cases upon cases of raw products. Chicken, ground beef, eggs.”
Health concerns changed that.
“We don’t use any raw products any more,” she said.
There weren’t many pre-packaged foods when she started, either.
“We were slicing frozen hamburgers on the slicer to make hamburgers for kids. We made our rolls from scratch. We cooked turkeys at Thanksgiving and picked all of the meat off the bones. We had turkey and dressin’ and potatoes and gravy and all of that stuff.”
Now, many recipes call for using pre-packaged sauces or other ready-to-eat ingredients — to assure uniformity and nutritional content, she said.
The Pasco school district puts a premium on serving healthy food.
“Pasco County is always the leader in meeting the nutritional standards,” she said.
“We have very good people at district office and they try to stay on top of what is coming, so we’re always prepared by the time it’s mandatory.”
Running a school kitchen is a busy job.
Maples and her staff serve 120 to 150 breakfasts a day at Watergrass Elementary. They serve 350 to 375 children at lunch and about 40 adults. The adult menu is different from the kids’ menu except on days when Maples is dishing up volume foods, such as spaghetti or orange chicken with rice.
“We take a lot of pride in the fact that we do serve a lot of adults,” Maples said.
Kindergarten teacher Janell Perez said she enjoys the food. She also noted that substitute teachers at Watergrass soon learn that they’re in for a treat.
“The lunches are very good,” Perez said.
The teacher added that Maples is quick to help when the teachers want to do something special for kids.
The lunchroom always looks cheerful, Perez added.
Atmosphere counts, Maples said. “I cannot stand my kitchen looking institutional.”
Those nominating Maples for the award cited numerous attributes, including her sensitivity, her attention to detail, her level-headed nature and her ability to make others feel appreciated and respected.
While pleased by the recognition, Maples credits her staff for helping her in her quest to serve satisfying meals.
She also appreciates the help of a volunteer who pitches in, often as many as three times a week.
“He volunteers from 7 to sometimes 1 o’clock,” said Maples, who has known the man all of her life.
“It’s my dad,” she said. “I’ve got him trained pretty good,” she added, laughing.
The recent award gratifies Maples, but there is something she would treasure more.
When people where she’s worked look back on their days at that school, she hopes that they’ll think this: “I was glad every day to go into that cafeteria where I knew I would get a nutritious, hot meal that was served to me with a smile by somebody that cared about me.”
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