One special day

Published 5:44 pm Wednesday, January 18, 2023

AHS Food and Nutrition employees get surprise visit from Carla Hall,  honored for their work


It doesn’t take long for Chef Carla Hall to energize a room. 

People saw it Tuesday on a visit to help support the Hometown Food Security Project’s backpack program at the Hormel Foods World Headquarters and people experienced it again Wednesday on a surprise visit to Austin High School where Hall directed that energy to highlight some very important employees of the district — employees of the school’s Food and Nutrition Department.

Email newsletter signup

From the moment Hall greeted the employees Wednesday morning, through a visit to an Introduction to Foods class where she worked with employees to guide students through the baking of her famous biscuits to finally treating the staff to a custom meal, Hall’s visit demonstrated the work food workers go through each day.

“Just knowing when you’re coming into work day in and day out and you feel like it’s a thankless job — you’re an unsung hero,” Hall said. “For somebody to say, ‘no, we see you,’ it just gives them that much more motivation to do what they do because it is really important. Every time I get chills.”

The employees didn’t know exactly what was coming when Director Mary Weikum pulled them together for a meeting early in the morning, but it didn’t take long to see the dawning draw across some of the employees’ faces.

“It’s just amazing,” Weikum said. “I always say, cooks and custodians are what keep the students running and to get the recognition and to get the thanks … to have someone from the Food Network come to our little school and pamper our cooks — it’s indescribable.”

Over the years, the Austin Public Schools district has worked hard to create a sustained and healthy food program as well as closing gaps for those who experience food insecurity.

It’s that effort that has highlighted what food workers in schools are doing every day.

“The meals a lot of kids get, it’s the only meal of the day,” Hall said. “They hadn’t eaten before they came here. Without proper nutrition, you can’t learn. That food and learning with the teachers, all of that goes together. They are just as important as teachers.”

At the same time, Weikum said that the work of Food and Nutrition employees doesn’t go completely under the radar. There are noticeable, personal metrics she sees on a daily basis that highlight the connection with students and parents.

“I can say many times during the year I get notes from students or parents. Their kid, they had a terrible day and the food service staff took care of their kid during the day when they were ready to have a meltdown,” Weikum said. “There are students who go to whatever line a certain cook is at because they are friends with them.”

Accompanying Hall early on was Hormel Foods CEO and President of the Board Jim Snee, who announced that Hormel was also donating $10,000 to the Food and Nutrition Department to be used in whatever way is needed.

“You get a special day because you’re worth it. This allows us to give you what you give us day in and day out,” Snee said. “Know you are worthy, you are seen and appreciated.”

Most of the day might have been about honoring food service workers, but it was also an opportunity for Hall to interact with the students themselves, guiding the Introduction to Foods class through the making of her flakey buttermilk biscuits.

It wasn’t long before the students were hands deep in their own projects with Hall going from station to station with a mixture of guidance and laughter.

“I know the power of food and I know they are coming in here and also they were doing the thing,” Hall said. “I have so many minutes when I’m doing a demo to grab them. To peak their interest. And then, when they are actually hands on and someone is trusting them to do a thing and teach them … kids do want to learn. They want people to trust that they can do a thing and to have faith in them.”

It’s unknown where some of these students will go in life, but even if none of them go on to become chefs or cooks, Hall said she hopes that they will at least find experiences in their own homes someday.

“I love teaching. I love when they look at their biscuits and say, ‘I did this. Oh my gosh, they’re rising, they taste delicious,’” Hall said. “There’s power and independence in that and I hope this encourages them to want to cook at home, even if it’s making a grilled cheese sandwich. You want to make the best grilled cheese sandwich you can make.”

As the morning worked into the afternoon, Weikum said that while she is a champion of her staff, there is weight to hearing kind words come from outside of the district. She hopes it’s something her staff takes with them.

“I’m a staunch supporter of the Food and Nutrition staff,” Weikum said. “I try to tell them often and repeatedly what a great job they do and how important they are. But coming from someone different is so great. I think it’s an amazing treat for them. It validates that what they do is important and I think hopefully they are all going to go home feeling good about themselves.”