DEVILS LAKE - It's 6 in the morning and a growling ground blizzard has frozen in place much of the state. Schools and buses here are running two hours late, but Vickie Borho won't be bothered by so little bluster.
The chief "lunch lady" of Devils Lake Public Schools is expecting 300 guests for dinner. Storm or not, she needs to get cooking.
"We always try to be a step ahead of ourselves because you never know when a blizzard will come in the door," Borho says with a laugh. "If you want to see mass confusion, that will be today at 12:15 when all the kids will be eating at the same time."
Crunching two lunch periods into one sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Borho's seasoned crew makes it look like a piece of cake.
Luckily, statewide testing a week earlier gave them a good practice run.
"We had 298 kids served, sitting down and fed in just 15 minutes," Borho said.
Such a feat might seem impossible for parents with only two teenagers at home. And that's not to mention the second miracle here. Sandy Dettling and Jan Langton would get all those dishes washed, dried and put away in another 30 minutes flat.
A different world
The cooks in this kitchen have everything fine-tuned to a comfortable hustle.
"We've worked together for several years," Borho says. "Sometimes we read each other's minds."
Borho has led the lunch program at the city's five public schools since 2006, and she serves as the high school's head cook.
It's here she mastered the art of feeding some of the world's most finicky eaters. It's an acquired skill, of course, but it helps to follow a few rules.
Lunch Lady Rule No. 1: "95 percent of kids don't like their food mixed. They like everything separate," Borho says.
Take spaghetti, for instance, a student favorite. First, there are noodles, and then there is sauce. Two things, not one.
Rule No. 2: Grandma goodness always ranks high on the like-o-meter.
"Banana bread is our most popular thing, and that's made from scratch every day, five days a week, 173 days of the year," Borho says.
Rule No. 3: Give them a smile. "If the lunch ladies aren't happy, nobody's happy. We adore our kids, and they respect us right back."
Rule No. 4: Give them plenty of choices.
That's one thing Borho never quite understood about the meatloaf brigade of her youth. Somehow the stern-looking cooks wearing frowns and furrowed brows between their tight roller curls and bright-pink lipstick missed that point.
They weren't all that way, but those are the ones most remembered. Cook and salad prepper Dawn Tollefson agrees: "Back in the '90s, my lunch ladies were cranky."
"And it was your basic meat and potatoes, and there was no portion control," Borho adds. "They just slapped it on your tray. You didn't get a say in if you wanted it or didn't like it. That was what you were going to get."
But Borho says school lunch programs have made a heap of change.
Sadly, gone are the gooey Special K bars smothered in chocolate. Students now enjoy whole wheat monkey bread drizzled in icing.
The dreaded Ruth Buzzi hair nets remain, but speckled trays in warm shades of teal and blue have replaced the old prison-issue stainless steel troughs.
Gone too are the flimsy, paper lunch tickets that turned to shreds after one jean-pocket ride through the wash. Students now tap in a simple code that has followed them from kindergarten.
The biggest change by far though is the increased focus on nutrition.
"We have advanced in our nutrition value," Borho says. "I can have control of my waste and my portion size down to the kernel."
She pulls out two books to demonstrate. Inside, she records daily breakfast and lunch details on double-page ledgers. All the Department of Public Instruction would want to know is here - everything from full menus, nutrition values and entree temperatures to the number of students served to just how many whole-grain corn dogs were left over.
Plenty to pick
Back in the kitchen, a la carte cook Avis Winnegge stirs a huge pot of chicken tortilla soup as she and Langton take turns tending the four large Vulcan ovens where racks of chicken strips need to be rotated and flipped.
Every student gets a choice of either a la carte or regular hot lunch, but Winnegge removed any potential stigma barriers by designing her menu to meet free and reduced lunch requirements.
No doubt the colorful banners announcing the day-by-day basics are helpful.
It's really a mouthful as Winnegge explains: "Today is Thursday and we have a choice of a chicken patty, cheese stick or fajita salad. You can have a corn dog, a hot dog, chicken strip, pizza pocket, cheeseburger, a pretzel burger or pretzel cold sandwich, which comes with potato wedges and a salad bar as your meal."
She stops to take a breath, then adds: "And for $1.50 today, you can have chicken tortilla soup and chips." There's also fresh fruit set out and a variety of drinks in a cooler.
To make such a large menu manageable, the cooks say they must work smart. Midmorning, Langton and student volunteer Rylie Schefter open and close buns for the next day. Pliable buns keep the lines moving, Langton explains.
"Good job," Borho encourages volunteer Destiny Rocha as she dates fresh fruit cups at another counter.
The morning goes quickly, and when the students begin to arrive, it's even more clear why these women love their jobs.
"Happy almost Friday," one says.
"Ohhhhhhh," two more say in feigned sympathy for a student who just finished running the mile in gym.
The jovial banter goes back and forth.
"You get to know all of the students, and I love to give them a bad time," Langton says.
"They make you feel young," Borho adds.