Did you know the first Friday of May is School Lunch Hero Day? Or that the inspiration for it in part comes from a series of graphic novels about a superhero lunch lady who fights evil robots with her fish-stick nunchucks?
Really. We had to get to the bottom of the story, so we tracked down Jarrett Krosoczka, the award-winning author and illustrator that helped launch the special day in 2013 in conjunction with the School Nutrition Association. It turns out an act of kindness from his elementary school lunch lady always stuck with him, and a chance encounter with her years later led to the popular Lunch Lady series that is now in development to become a movie.
Stoessel: How did the Lunch Lady series come about?
Krosoczka: My first picture book, Good Night, Monkey Boy, was published in the summer of 2001, and that fall I returned to my old elementary school in Worcester, MA. They set me up in the cafetorium for the presentations. While I was plugging in my slide projector I looked across the room to see my old lunch lady, Jean. I marveled at the fact that there she was, all those years later, diligently preparing meals for the students. I stopped her to say hello, and she remembered me, and we immediately struck up a conversation. She told me about her grandkids—and it really took me off-guard. I had never thought about her life outside of school. So that chance encounter triggered my imagination. What would lunch ladies do when they weren’t serving food? After a few years of brainstorming, I came to the conclusion that they would be fighting crime!
Stoessel: What do you remember about Jean and school lunches?
Krosoczka: I remember Jean and her colleague, Betty, as always being warm and friendly. My grade school was housed in an old building from the late 1800s and the kitchen was located in the basement. Lunches were eaten in classrooms, we didn’t really have a cafeteria. (The building was torn down after I graduated, and the new construction included the cafetorium.) While my grandmother sent me to school with my own lunch everyday, I always bought my milk at school. I distinctly remember one day I had forgotten my lunch and had no money—I was crying. Jean gave me a lunch that day, and that kindness has never been lost on me.
Stoessel: Describe the series’ plot and the target audience?
Krosoczka: The Lunch Lady series is about a crime fighter who sniffs out villainous plots that pop around the school. She uses items from the cafeteria as gadgets to take down the bad guys—a Spork Phone, Fish-Stick Nunchucks, a Spatu-copter. (She also quips things like “Aw, peas and carrots!” and “Looks like somebody ordered the knuckle sandwich!”) Lunch Lady relies on help from her sidekick, also named Betty, and three kids called The Breakfast Bunch. Hector, Terrence and Dee are three students who have breakfast at the school, and they wonder about their lunch lady’s home life. They quickly get wrapped up in the adventure, and they’re the only people that Lunch Lady trusts with the secret of her dual identity. These are graphic novels that are squarely targeted for the elementary-set. I’ve met kindergartners, sixth graders and adults who all love the books equally.
Stoessel: How many books are there and are more coming?
Krosoczka: There are 10 books now, and for the time being, this will be it for full-length books. I am co-editing an anthology of kids’ comics called Comics Squad, and in each volume I will make a mini-comic about a character in the world of Lunch Lady. In a few years I will most likely get back to full-length books. After 13 years of thinking about and working on these books, I thought it would be important to take a bit of a break while I work on other creative endeavors.
Stoessel: How did School Lunch Hero Day come about? Will you remain involved?
Krosoczka: When the series was first published in 2009, I invited Jean to the Worcester Public Library for the launch party. In front of a room filled with a few hundred people, many of whom she fed over the years, I presented her with a painting of the character and a collection of books. I would later learn how much that gesture meant to her when at her wake, that painting was placed next to her casket. I spoke to her husband who told me how very meaningful that gesture had been. I had thanked her, made a big deal out of the work that she did—which wasn’t something that happened all that often. I was deeply moved by this. At school visits, I was seeing how the cafeteria staff was brought into the programming, the books were acting as a bridge between the cafeteria and the various school departments.
Most striking were all of the incredibly creative art projects kids were making after reading the books. I wanted to harness all of this good will and recreate that validation that Jean had felt. It’s just been remarkable to see how School Lunch Hero Day has taken off. School Lunch Hero Day will always be the first Friday of May. And yes, I have no plans of stepping away from my involvement.
Shifting Lunch Lady Perceptions
Stoessel: The term lunch lady can have a negative connotation, but your series and this new holiday are helping change that. Was that a goal?
Krosoczka: I didn’t even know the term lunch lady had a negative connotation until after I started creating School Lunch Hero Day. I had no clue—I always had looked at it as a term of endearment. It’s unreal to me that the series is helping shift perceptions—that’s an incredible honor, and I am wowed by that. But the original intent was to write a fun, engaging comic about a lunch lady who fought off evil robots.
Stoessel: How important is school foodservice and why are lunch ladies heroes?
Krosoczka: School foodservice is essential! So many students rely on these meals—they wouldn’t be eating without them. As I tour the country, I meet so many school nutrition professionals, and I am always inspired by how much they love their jobs and the students they serve. They’re heroes because they’re working their fingers to the bone, and often without enough resources or recognition.
Stoessel: Have you been touched by stories from students on how much lunch ladies have meant to them…
Krosoczka: I could write chapters on this. But the story that sticks out the most to me is about a boy with special needs. The only adults in his life that he will open up to are his lunch ladies. They not only make sure that he eats well, but they encourage him to work hard in his classes and keep up on what books he’s reading, so they can read them, too, and share a bond.
I also just learned of a high school graduating class that dedicated their yearbook to their school’s lunch staff. How awesome is that?
Stoessel: I imagine you see a lot of school cafeterias. What are you impressions of the meals being served in schools today?
Krosoczka: I am on book tours quite a bit and am often being brought into schools. Whenever I can, I make it a point to meet the folks working in the cafeteria. They are serving legit, healthy meals. The stereotype of nasty food is very unjust. I love that alongside Pizza Days you are also seeing Meatless Mondays and other fun initiatives to open students’ eyes to healthy options.
Stoessel: Will you reference the new nutrition standards in an upcoming story? Maybe fresh veggies instead of French fries...
Krosoczka: When I get back to making Lunch Lady books, I doubt you’ll start seeing our hero with Kale Nunchucks. But all along, she uses fruits and vegetables as ammo alongside her Hover Pizza and Macaroni and Cheese Cannon.