When my first children's book was published in 2001, I returned to my old elementary school to talk to the students about being an author and an illustrator, and when I was setting up my slide projector in the cafetorium, I looked across the room, and there she was: my old lunch lady. She was still there at the school and she was busily preparing lunches for the day. So I approached her to say hello, and I said, "Hi, Jeannie! How are you?" And she looked at me, and I could tell that she recognized me, but she couldn't quite place me, and she looked at me and she said, "Stephen Krosoczka?" And I was amazed that she knew I was a Krosoczka, but Stephen is my uncle who is 20 years older than I am, and she had been his lunch lady when he was a kid. And she started telling me about her grandkids, and that blew my mind. My lunch lady had grandkids, and therefore kids, and therefore left school at the end of the day? I thought she lived in the cafeteria with the serving spoons. I had never thought about any of that before.
Well, that chance encounter inspired my imagination, and I created the Lunch Lady graphic novel series, a series of comics about a lunch lady who uses her fish stick nunchucks to fight off evil cyborg substitutes, a school bus monster, and mutant mathletes, and the end of every book, they get the bad guy with their hairnet, and they proclaim, "Justice is served!"
And it's been amazing, because the series was so welcomed into the reading lives of children, and they sent me the most amazing letters and cards and artwork. And I would notice as I would visit schools, the lunch staff would be involved in the programming in a very meaningful way. And coast to coast, all of the lunch ladies told me the same thing: "Thank you for making a superhero in our likeness." Because the lunch lady has not been treated very kindly in popular culture over time. But it meant the most to Jeannie. When the books were first published, I invited her to the book launch party, and in front of everyone there, everyone she had fed over the years, I gave her a piece of artwork and some books. And two years after this photo was taken, she passed away, and I attended her wake, and nothing could have prepared me for what I saw there, because next to her casket was this painting, and her husband told me it meant so much to her that I had acknowledged her hard work, I had validated what she did.
And that inspired me to create a day where we could recreate that feeling in cafeterias across the country: School Lunch Hero Day, a day where kids can make creative projects for their lunch staff. And I partnered with the School Nutrition Association, and did you know that a little over 30 million kids participate in school lunch programs every day. That equals up to a little over five billion lunches made every school year.
And the stories of heroism go well beyond just a kid getting a few extra chicken nuggets on their lunch tray. There is Ms. Brenda in California, who keeps a close eye on every student that comes through her line and then reports back to the guidance counselor if anything is amiss. There are the lunch ladies in Kentucky who realized that 67 percent of their students relied on those meals every day, and they were going without food over the summer, so they retrofitted a school bus to create a mobile feeding unit, and they traveled around the neighborhoods feedings 500 kids a day during the summer.
And kids made the most amazing projects. I knew they would. Kids made hamburger cards that were made out of construction paper. They took photos of their lunch lady's head and plastered it onto my cartoon lunch lady and fixed that to a milk carton and presented them with flowers. And they made their own comics, starring the cartoon lunch lady alongside their actual lunch ladies. And they made thank you pizzas, where every kid signed a different topping of a construction paper pizza.
For me, I was so moved by the response that came from the lunch ladies, because one woman said to me, she said, "Before this day, I felt like I was at the end of the planet at this school. I didn't think that anyone noticed us down here." Another woman said to me, "You know, what I got out of this is that what I do is important."
And of course what she does is important. What they all do is important. They're feeding our children every single day, and before a child can learn, their belly needs to be full, and these women and men are working on the front lines to create an educated society.
So I hope that you don't wait for School Lunch Hero Day to say thank you to your lunch staff, and I hope that you remember how powerful a thank you can be. A thank you can change a life. It changes the life of the person who receives it, and it changes the life of the person who expresses it.