Meet Darien's 'Lunch Teacher:' an ex-Tokeneke lunch lady describes her days behind the counter in memoir

DARIEN — One year after leaving her job, a former Tokeneke self-described "lunch lady" has put her experiences and philosophy into print, looking back on what her work meant not just to her, but to the students she taught along the way.

For more than four years, Vanessa David worked behind the lunch counter for Darien Public Schools, cooking meals from scratch for high school and later Tokeneke Elementary School students.

She describes her adventures in "The Lunch Teacher," a memoir she hopes to publish soon but has posted excerpts on her Instagram, @thelunchteacher.

In the course of a day, David was responsible for preparing and serving as many as 10 entree options for elementary school students. At the high school, she said there were 15 options on any given day.

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An excerpt from The Lunch Teacher, published on Instagram.

We made a decent hourly wage as a far as food service pay rates went. It was seventeen dollars and seventy cents at the time, more than the fifteen dollars most fast food workers were fighting for. But we could only work so many hours and so many days. There was no overtime, no weekends and only one hundred eighty three days a year. Plus, feeding kids is more than food work. It is care work. Our work made it possible for parents to send their kids to school without breakfast, without lunch, without anything more than their books. We provided breakfast, lunch and endless snacks, goodies treats and drinks until 3:30 every day. This is an extremely important function in any and every school district. Nutrition benefits learning and brings higher test scores. Nutrition increases focus. I knew this from my own childhood. I couldn't concentrate in elementary school because I was so damn hungry.

When she worked at the high school, David said she was one of 10 employees managing lunches. When she got to Tokeneke, she was one of three people — and then two — serving a school of approximately 450 students.

“By the end, it was only me and one other worker, so it was very difficult to do all of that with just two people,” she said. “You do all the cooking and you do all the cleaning up. You have to make sure you're following all the food regulations, everything's the right temperature, doing the dishes. It's a very, very physical, physical job.”

David said she loved working at the elementary school because it gave her an opportunity to use her culinary skills to teach students about food.

She said she found a natural curiosity in elementary students, many of whom were open to experimenting with foods as she taught them to like vegetables and international dishes like chicken paprikash.

“We do kids a disservice when we allow them to eat chicken nuggets every day because there's so many delicious cuisines out there,” she said.

She said she even helped some of her students learn about the science of cooking. One of her fondest memories was teaching a child about how cheese on pizza browns and tastes better.

“You could teach kids a lot about food, and they still don't have to leave their comfort zone,” she said.

David acknowledged that working in a town as wealthy as Darien offered advantages — not every school has the luxury of a professional-grade kitchen and not every lunch staff has culinary training like hers.

Even in Darien, David experienced many of the issues that dominate national conversations around schools — like student lunch debt.

If a student's prepaid lunch account is more than $20 in arrears, the child isn't allowed to charge snacks, drinks or a la carte items on their accounts. David and other employees were only allowed to give them a cheese sandwich. David said she refused to abide by that rule, even paying off a student’s debt herself once.

Watching a student arrive without lunch hit her personally, she said, bringing back childhood memories when her parents sent her to school without food. 

“Kids shouldn't have to suffer,” she said. “Whether their parents don't have the money or they're just absent minded, they should always get a free hot lunch.”

Working through the pandemic put extraordinary strain on staff as lunch staff prepared, bagged and delivered lunches to the students in a rush she called the “lunch lady Olympics.” David estimated that she herself bagged more than 25,000 lunches in a year.

Eventually David left the position, burned out from the pandemic and the introduction of prepackaged foods into the schools, she said.

While she said she believed schools could balance both pre-made and scratch foods, she felt she was no longer able to do the job she was hired to do.

“I don't think we should never make food out of a box, and I don't think it should be all scratch made because some kids don't like that either,” she said. “But I think you have to try to make it better. There always has to be trying.”

After leaving the job, David decided she wanted to share her story on behalf of others like her who took pride in their profession.

She began writing “The Lunch Teacher,” with the goal to change how school lunch service is perceived, she said. 

The title was inspired by one of her many bagged lunch deliveries to a kindergarten classroom. Though she made countless runs to the classrooms during that year, she said she never forgot the day one kindergartner spotted her and announced to the class, “Look, the lunch teacher!” 

David called it a “christening moment,” struck that a young child who had never experienced a normal school lunch service called her a teacher.

David acknowledged that the term “lunch lady” has a complicated history, a gendered title that can often be used in a derogatory way. Some prefer a more gender-neutral term like “food service worker.”

In David’s eyes, this child found the perfect title for her profession.

“We’ve been fighting about what we’re called and this kindergartner knows that we’re lunch teachers,” she said. “We’re presenting them with what lunch should be and what foods should be.”