WORTHINGTON - For five days a week, District 518 cafeterias are abuzz with students during breakfast and lunch.

They’ve also become a hub for student congregation and learning.

District 518 administration and board of education members say continuing to simply add classrooms on at Prairie Elementary, Worthington Middle School and Worthington High School will no longer suffice. The cafeterias and other common spaces, they argue, are filled to the brim with little opportunity to further expand the grid.

While feeding anywhere from approximately 800 to 1,300 students in about a two-hour timeframe is accomplished differently at each building’s cafeteria - from student seating, to the kitchen and service lines - satisfying students’ appetites is accomplished under tight conditions, building administrators and kitchen staff agree.

The degree to which a growing enrollment has affected the cafeteria differs at each building, but kitchen staff agrees that despite less-than-ideal preparation and serving environments - and without any other choice - they’ve learned to make the space work to get the job done. However, they share some concern looking ahead at future enrollment projections and as younger grade levels, which currently have the highest enrollment numbers, age and transition to the current middle and high school buildings.

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The Prairie Elementary cafeteria is perhaps the busiest cafeteria in the district’s three buildings. At last update, there are about 1,239 students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

When students are dropped off each morning, students in grades one through four - regardless if they’re eating or not - congregate in the cafeteria, where about 700 to 800 kids are served and eat breakfast in a 30-minute timeframe. For the students not eating breakfast, paraprofessionals routinely cycle through the tables near the back of the cafeteria, where they wait to be led to their designated common space.

Likewise, students that finish their breakfast know to immediately vacate their spot at the table and move to the common area in their grade level’s wing. As soon as one student gets up, building paraprofessionals are instructing the next to sit in the newly vacated spot to keep student traffic moving.  

Even having kids retreat to their grade level’s common space has little effect, other than shifting congestion to another part of the building.

The common spaces, said Prairie Elementary Principal Heidi Meyer, have also been outgrown by the student population, which is most evident between breakfast and the beginning of the school day and during free play times.

“By design, the common area was intended for the grade to congregate and do group activities,” she said. “We can’t really do that anymore.”

Despite an overcrowded cafeteria or common area, the morning routine, which Meyer called a “well-oiled system,” seems to be the best current option since the kids need supervision and a routine each morning.

The district’s approximately 250 kindergarteners are not thrown into the morning breakfast rush. They are brought separately at 8:20 a.m.

“We wouldn’t be able to facilitate it if they were in the mix,” Meyer said.

Meyer said the kindergarteners are then the first to eat lunch, which begins promptly at 11 a.m. Each grade, which has an average of 248 students, follows thereafter in 30-minute increments until lunch concludes at 1:30 p.m.

The students flow through four serving lines, which is two more than when Prairie Elementary Head Cook Pat Daggett began nine years ago.

“We also served two grade levels at a time,” Daggett said. “We can’t do that anymore.”

Meyer said cooperation in sticking promptly to the schedule is imperative.

“The trickle down of missing that routine affects others,” Meyer said.

Daggett agreed.

“If one person is five minutes late, it throws everybody off,” Daggett said. “We’re always reminding the kids to keep moving.”

She added that the kids do well given the circumstances, especially during breakfast when they have 10 to 15 minutes to eat.

Keeping kids on a strict lunch schedule is not the only key to making mealtime work. When to begin cooking food takes some intricate decision-making skills, as the kitchen staff has to weigh food quality and timeliness.

“We want to ensure it’s on time and that the quality is there,” Daggett said. “I have six ovens, and it’s tight. The appliances only go so fast, and we can’t really rush more than we do.”

Daggett said there are 13 kitchen staff employees, and the amount of students warrant the need for another.

But it’s not that simple anymore.

“We’re out of space,” Daggett said. “We have no more room for another person in (the kitchen).”

Daggett said the staff and space is further pushed to its limit on early-out days. On those days, one grade level goes through the lunch line and takes their food to eat in their classroom so the next grade level can begin their lunchtime.

“If we had to add another 100 kids, I don’t know what we’d do,” Daggett said.  

Much like the elementary school, the middle school’s cafeteria is pushed to its limit during breakfast.

WMS Principal Jeff Luke said breakfast is most problematic because all four grade levels are eating during the same 30-minute time frame. According to WMS Head Cook Marjo Taarud, around 375 middle school students regularly eat breakfast at the school.

“I know there are some mornings when kids turn away because they see there’s no room,” Taarud said.

Luke said the cafeteria has already been reconfigured by swapping tables and table positions, but more will likely need to be added in the next few years.

Luke added that middle schoolers are encouraged to leave the cafeteria space once they’re finished with breakfast to free up space for the next waves of students, which continue to enter throughout a 30-minute timeframe as buses periodically drop off students.  

Lunch, which begins at 11 a.m., is served in 30-minute increments over four lunch blocks. Youths maneuver through two service lines.  

According to DeAnn Crall, the district’s director of food service, with about 950 lunches served daily, the middle school is needing to increase its current eight-person kitchen staff by one.

“Because of the size of the kitchen we’ve been putting it off because we don’t have the space,” Taarud added.

In addition to the approximately 950 middle school lunches, the middle school kitchen staff also prepares about 45 breakfasts and 100 lunches for the district’s head start students. The kitchen staff also prepares an after-school snack twice a week for students in EDGE, an after-school supplemental learning program that also meets in the cafeteria.

Taarud said while the physical size of her kitchen would not be affected should the referendum pass, she expects she and her staff would experience some space relief due to having one less grade level in the mix. The referendum proposal calls for a reconfiguration of each school, including the current middle school, which would serve as an intermediate school for grades three through five.

There are some key factors at the high school level that cause food service to not be similar to the younger levels’ cafeteria environments.

WHS Principal Josh Noble said perhaps the biggest difference is the upper grade level students’ option to leave for lunch.

Noble said quite a few juniors and seniors take advantage of their open-campus option, which he added has a big impact on cafeteria space concerns.

“If we didn’t allow open-campus we’d likely have to add at least one more lunch (block),” Noble said. “If we did that, we’d have to decrease instructional minutes.”

According to WHS Head Cook Barb DeGroot, the high school kitchen staff typically serves 830 lunches. Because of open-campus, that number can fluctuate, which DeGroot said is typically attributed to what’s on the menu and the weather.

With about 886 total high school students, lunch is split into three blocks of about 300 students each, Noble said. Students maneuver through three serving lines and eat in a 30-minute timespan.

DeGroot said the a la carte items, which were once served in one of the lines, are now outside of the kitchen to free up space for another entree service line.

Additional seating space has also been added in the last two to three years when the high school’s only stage was removed, said WHS Assistant Principal Tony Hastings. While renovating that nook in the cafeteria afforded more cafeteria seating, it was at the expense of a student learning tool that language arts teachers had incorporated into their lessons.

The high school cafeteria is less stressed in the morning, as an average of 300 students eat breakfast. Additionally, high school kitchen staff have created a grab ‘n go style breakfast so students aren’t piling up in the cafeteria.

Perhaps the most difficult part about the high school cafeteria is the kitchen space, DeGroot said.

“It’s very cramped in the kitchen - more so here (than the other buildings),” she said.

DeGroot said one of the adaptations she’s made is not ordering more food than what will be served in a week.

“We don’t have room to store (extra),” she said.

In addition to the approximately 830 lunches, the high school kitchen staff also prepares about 200 meals that are catered to the Area Learning Center and Worthington Christian School.

School administration has said that the hope and intent is to continue those catered services, but if enrollment continues to climb and the conditions remain the same, it may have to reevaluate that service.

Noble said the high school cafeteria is not only used for student meals.

Twice a week, a couple of math teachers and students in need of additional math support use the cafeteria as a meeting space because those teachers do not have their own classrooms, Noble said.

“I think we’ll see that continue to grow as we hire more teachers without classrooms,” Noble said of the dependency on the high school cafeteria for use beyond its intended purpose.