As any parent can tell you, the daily grind of making school lunches is getting tougher.
Long gone are the days when you could just slap together a PB+J sandwich. Nowadays, dietary restrictions abound in schools, and the pressure’s on to provide balanced, healthy meals.
But the flip side of that is the healthier the meal, the more likely your child will complain of lunch bag letdown.
So what’s a parent to do?
Christine Fisher says she has a solution.
Fisher quit her job of 23 years as a computer programmer to become a professional "Lunch Lady." Since 2008, she’s been serving up hot, nutritious meals to students at more than 40 elementary and middle schools in and around Winnipeg, including 17 in the St. Boniface/St. Vital area.
"As a mother I know how difficult it can be to make lunches for my children every day," she says. "That was one of the reasons that I decided to bring the Lunch Lady to Winnipeg."
Toronto mom Ruthie Burd established the Lunch Lady brand in 1993, and it has since expanded to more than 45 franchises across Canada.
Fisher’s 11 employees start arriving before eight o’clock each morning, preparing kids’ favourites like burgers and mac and cheese, along with fancier fare such as quesadillas and sushi. Fruits and vegetables come with combo meals, or can be ordered separately.
Some days see more than 400 lunches prepared in Lunch Lady’s large commercial, nut-free kitchen near Windsor Park.
"I love it," says Jesusa McKnight, who was hard at work with a local Lunch Lady crew last week. "Being a mom myself, I like the fact that if I’m ordering from the Lunch Lady, these are healthier alternatives that my kids will normally eat."
Fisher believes that with the growing awareness about the dangers of obesity, "it’s important to teach kids that it’s OK to eat healthy.
"If we can get a child to eat carrots or apple slices that they normally wouldn’t eat, then that’s great," she says. "If that works into a habit, then hopefully we are helping build healthier adults."
Fisher says business has been so successful that she’s expanding the Lunch Lady to daycares and summer camps.
Most meals are in the $5 to $6 range and there are a number of different options parents can order for their kids. Lunch service is tailored to meet different school needs, with some schools receiving meals once a week and others just a few times a year.
Fisher says meals are dropped off at schools in some cases, but in others her staff will help dole out the lunches. This puts less pressure on parent volunteers, who are in short supply at many schools.
"It’s a break for parents. The kids are excited about it, and it’s easy for the schools," she says. "Their secretaries are busy; their teachers are busy. So if we can just come in and do our thing and be gone without causing them a lot of work, the principals really appreciate that."
Kim Kiemeney has two boys who attend Samuel Burland School. She’s used the Lunch Lady program there for two years, and says her kids can’t wait to "scarf down" their food on hot lunch day.
"My kids are fussier, so I get to pick and choose things off the menu that they’ll eat. It’s a good price and they get a nice hot meal once a week," she says. "I wish it was twice a week."