story and photo by Bobby Anderson, Staff Writer
For 44 years now Norma Cartwright has showed up to work each and every school day to teach kids.
She’s never given a test, a quiz or even homework.
But tying on an apron at five in the morning, Cartwright gives every student what they need to succeed as Oklahoma City Public Schools’ longest-tenured cafeteria employee.
“I don’t know. I like to cook,” she said of what’s kept her in the kitchen all these years. “I like baking. I started out in the bakery department and it’s all I’ve ever done.”
In the early days she baked from scratch. Sandwich bread, hot dog and hamburger buns, cookies, cakes and cinnamon rolls all were made by Cartwight’s loving hands.
Things got a little easier through the years as the district moved to more prepared items. But she’s always put the same amount of heart into whatever she’s doing.
And as her career winds down she says it warms her heart to see the district offer free meals to every student in the district for the first time.
“I thought it was great,” she said. “When I was going to school, lunch hour was my favorite. I always looked forward to it. Now the kids can come in for breakfast or lunch and eat what they want off the menu and enjoy their meal. No stress, they can just eat.”
Breakfast at Roosevelt means preparing some 500 meals. Lunch balloons to over 700.
Carol Jones is Cartwright’s cafeteria supervisor. She’s amazed at the increasing numbers of meals coming out of the kitchen.
“It’s awesome and we don’t have to hound the kids for money and call and hound the parents,” she said. “It’s one of the best things (the district) has ever done.”
From the first day of school, cafeteria managers reported an increase in the number of meals served.
Gwen Thompson has been in the kitchen with Cartwright for 21 years.
“We love her,” Thompson said. “(And the free lunches) have been a blessing. I’ve always wanted that.”
Cartwright raised three kids and sent all of them through Oklahoma City Public Schools.
She stayed home until the youngest entered junior high.
A school schedule meshed perfectly with a family schedule.
Years later, she’s still in school even though her kids have kids of their own.
“I have never met any woman I haven’t liked all these years,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of good friends and I enjoyed working with them. Almost all of them had children like I did.”
Schools across the district report serving more meals.
Teresa Gipson works at Shidler Elementary located on the corner of SE 15th and S Byers.
She entered the district in 1982 at West Nichols Hills and moved into the kitchen 12 years ago.
“I like working with kids,” Gipson said. “(Working in the cafeteria) is still taking care of children. You’re feeding them and the most important thing for a child to eat is breakfast.”
On more than a few occasions Gipson and her fellow co-workers have gone into their purses to get money to pay for student lunches.
“I know we’re not supposed to do that but …,” Gipson said. “It’s not their fault and sometimes the parents just don’t have the money to pay for it. (Free meals) is a good idea – a good idea.”
“Every kid should get to eat.” Gipson explained that once a student’s lunch account balance reached a certain number a note would be sent home to the parents. The child could receive only a few more lunch trays before they were unable to choose what they wanted to eat.
From there, a sack lunch with a peanut butter jelly sandwich, a fruit and a milk would be their only option.
“(At Hawthorne Elementary) there was this one girl who had to get a sandwich. I could tell she was embarrassed. She took it but threw it away and I noticed she sat there for a while and then got up and walked off,” Gipson said. “I could tell that was really embarrassing.”
Kevin Ponce has spent his entire career in child nutrition. Oklahoma City’s school nutrition services director says the district could break even if not see a return on its investment through the USDA’s reimbursement program.
“Hopefully, universal feeding will go nationwide where we get away from keeping kids in categories,” said Ponce, who noted 53 of Oklahoma City’s 74 schools offered free meals prior to this year. “It’s great for the kids and great for the district. We support education so anything to get the kids ready for the classroom is a huge thing.”
Cartwright has six grandchildren – all within the OKC metro. She says she plans on spending at least one more year with the district.
She’s still got a lot of free meals to prepare.