a community engagement initiative of Waverly Community Unit District #6
Even if you know nothing else about school nutrition, we all know kids need to eat, especially during the day when they’re constantly shifting from one gear to the next, physically and mentally. Waverly School District is fortunate to have terrific, easy-going lunch ladies in the kitchen who tackle the momentous task of ensuring food is in the bellies of all Vipers. Deci Lang and Michele Rice are certified professionals at dishing out the good stuff that keeps students coming back for seconds while providing adequate nutrition for their developing minds.
By Nate Fisher
Michele has been with the district for twenty-three years, and this is Deci’s seventeenth year overall, with three years of experience in the school kitchen under her belt so far. Michele started at Waverly washing dishes when her oldest son entered kindergarten all those years ago and has since graduated to making menus to give students variety in choice. Deci was a paraprofessional/teacher’s aide but had her sights set on an ideal role. “I’d been wanting to be in the kitchen for a little while. I like to be in the kitchen. I like to cook,” she says, “Then when somebody retired, I asked if I could have the position.”
Working together as a team of experts on what dietary staples young folks need most, Michele, Deci and their team of lunch ladies feed about 150-160 students daily at lunchtime, depending on the menu. You can forget about finding a seat whenever the popular “Viper Bowl” is served. For those not in the know, this school-spirited delicacy is a succulent blend of potatoes with popcorn chicken, corn, gravy, and cheese all in one bowl (Take a hike, KFC). During breakfast, which usually feeds around 50-60 students a day, students and staff alike are in the cafeteria chasing down a helping of biscuits-n-gravy when it’s up on the menu.
Michele and Deci are longtime community members but arrived at Waverly from other locales. “We moved here. We’re outlaws,” Deci jokes. She’s originally from the small town-focused state of North Dakota, and Michele was raised in the Highland, IL, area. Knowing how smaller communities function has aided the two in addressing food-related issues that affect students every school day, specifically the free and reduced lunch program.
During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributed waivers to states that allowed all students to receive free meals at school. The federal waivers expired at the end of June, and schools nationwide were left panicked, devising ways to feed students during a staffing and supply chain crisis. Under current federal policy, eligible students can receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.
“If everybody could actually eat for free, then it would be a lot easier,” Michele says, “Because we have a lot of kids that would eat that don’t because meals are too expensive.”
Deci and Michele’s sensitivity to community needs and lending a helping hand is evident in what they’d wish for if given the opportunity. If they were offered a magic wand and could use it for one thing, Deci would deck out “a whole new kitchen in the school building with all neat, new appliances.” Michele says she’d use that same wand to make certain all kids have access to nutritious meals every day. Maybe they were outlaws back when they first rode into Waverly, but since then, they’ve become active settlers, settling empty stomachs daily with grace (and a little gravy).