For 21½ years, Bonnie Burbrink has made sure students had full bellies and smiles on their faces when they left the lunchroom.
“Sometimes, those lunch ladies are the only ones they see every day that gives them a smile,” she said of students. “So that’s one of the most important things we serve — that smile.”
As director of food services for Seymour Community School Corp., it has been her job to oversee the kitchens and cafeterias at five elementary schools, the sixth grade center, a middle school and a high school.
Story continues below gallery
Although she wasn’t the one in the lunch line greeting students every day, she was responsible for each meal — breakfast and lunch — prepared and served to them. She can’t even begin to estimate how many meals that equals in her career.
From ordering food and planning monthly menus that meet USDA regulations to dealing with the constant changes in federal guidelines and rolling out new initiatives, the job has never been boring, Burbrink said.
But the time has come to pass on the torch, she said.
Burbrink, 64, officially retired at the end of the school year last week, leaving her assistant, Stacey Driver, who has been with the district for the past two years, to take over this summer.
The decision to retire wasn’t an easy one to make, but Burbrink is comfortable knowing she is leaving the job in good hands, she said.
“I’ll miss the people I work with the most and the kids,” she said. “But I always said the only thing I would like more than this job is to stay at home, so I’m looking forward to staying at home.”
She also plans to spend time with her family and volunteer more with the Love Chapel food pantry and assistance center in Columbus, where she is currently on the board of directors.
Burbrink’s career as food service director in Seymour began in January 1995 after she spent about a month following her predecessor, Jean Auffenberg.
Before coming to Seymour, Burbrink had worked in the same position at Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. in Bartholomew County since 1988. She had a degree in home economics from Purdue University but up until that point had been a stay-at-home mom.
With her kids all in school, she decided a job in food service was the perfect fit.
“It was a much smaller school system there,” she said. “So when this position came open, Jean and former Superintendent Dr. (Robert) Mahan knew I lived in this direction, so they called to see if I was interested, and I was.”
The transition to a bigger school corporation was “a good change for me,” Burbrink said.
“Being at Flat Rock-Hawcreek, I was the only one in the office, which meant I had to do everything,” she said. “It was really nice to have someone else do payroll.”
One of the biggest challenges for Burbrink was modernizing Seymour’s food services department with computers.
“Jean was sure I was going to bankrupt the entire system because I was putting a computer in my office,” Burbrink said, laughing.
Technology is now a driving force behind every aspect of schools, including food service, she said.
“When we first started, there were cash registers and punch tickets for lunches and checkoff sheets for who came through the line,” she said. “So the way we keep records has changed tremendously.”
All information is now stored in spreadsheets and databases, and everything is done on computers. Parents can add money to their children’s meal accounts online.
Meal patterns are another aspect of food service that is constantly changing, Burbrink said. Because the department has always been a part of the USDA school lunch program, it has to follow federal nutrition guidelines in food preparation and serving.
“In 2010, new guidelines came out, and it’s taken some real getting used to, but we are,” she said. “I think we are making that progress. Each time they make a change, it’s hard on us. It’s a challenge. But I think in all good faith, they are trying to make it best for kids.”
The national school lunch program began as a way to help feed hungry, malnourished children, she said.
“Now, we’re at the opposite end of it, trying to fight childhood obesity; still working on better nourishment, but from a different angle,” she said.
Burbrink can remember a time when she was in school that bread and butter was served with every meal.
“My aunt was a school lunch lady, and they used commodity butter, and at that time, the meal requirement was you had to have so much butter per meal,” she said.
When she first got into working food service, Burbrink said there was much more full prep or from scratch cooking and baking going on in the kitchens than there is today.
Most cooking has ceased, she said, because of the potential for food safety issues, nutrition and time and labor costs.
At one time, it was common for schools to receive shipments of raw hamburger, chicken and even whole turkeys, she said. Schools still serve meat, it just doesn’t come in raw anymore. Instead, the meat is sent to major processing plants and comes back to the schools as chicken nuggets, hamburger patties, sloppy Joe or taco mix.
“That gives a consistency to the product, and with our meal patterns, there has to be a consistency because we’re counting things like calories and fat and portion sizes,” she said. “Whereas before, there was just a minimum.”
But even with less cooking required, the department is serving more meals in a shorter amount of time, she said.
For a long time, Burbrink said she never even considered retiring because there was no one she felt comfortable handing her job to. That changed when Driver applied.
“I was looking for a bookkeeper/assistant who could come in and help out, and I had this application from this young girl who I didn’t know who had her degree in dietetics and was getting her registered dietitian degree,” Burbrink said.
Driver had just graduated from Ball State University with her master’s degree in 2013.
“She was looking for something in food service just to get started,” Burbrink said.
In the two years Driver has worked with Burbrink, it never has been clear what her title is.
“She’s been more than a bookkeeper but not quite an assistant director because that would have meant more pay,” Burbrink said.
Driver said she always has had an interest in food service but didn’t realize it was something she could do full time.
“I can remember being in elementary school and I was always excited to get my lunch menu, and I would look at it and see what we were going to have, and I was sure I could make a better lunch than that,” she said.
When she got to college, she discovered she could take science and cooking classes and combine them into a job as a registered dietitian.
So she started down that path.
One of her first assignments was to shadow someone in the field, so she spent time with the food service director at Jennings County Schools, where she went to high school.
“That was a good experience,” she said.
She also spent time in Muncie Community Schools and realized that school food service is where she was meant to be.
“I feel like I learn something new every day, and things are constantly changing,” she said.
Some days, Driver has been in the cafeterias and jumped in the serving line to help, and those moments she can see the impact of what she does.
“The kids are always excited to come to lunch,” she said. “So one of the questions I ask myself and the other ladies is ‘Did we feed all the kids today?’ If so, then we’ve done our job.”