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Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016

Harrington's job started as teen in school kitchen

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Karen Harrington packed sack lunches on her last day as a cook in the Le Mars Community Schoool District, ending a 31-year tenure in the kitchens of LCS. Her experience in the kitchens actually started when she was a student.
After three decades in the kitchen at Le Mars Community Schools, Karen Harrington won't be preparing meals for 1,500 anymore each day.

Harrington retired at the end of May, spending her last day at school handing out sack lunches to students with her ever-present smile.

Harrington's story of serving lunch in school kitchens actually begins when she was in seventh grade at Merrill.

"We could earn our meal by helping serve lunch in the kitchen then," Harrington said. "It was a good deal."

That was when all classes at Merrill were held in the building that until recently housed the Merrill Civic Center.

Harrington remembers cook Marjorie Schmid, who still lives in Merrill.

"She made a raisin bar that had an oatmeal crust and a filling in the middle that was one of my favorites," Harrington said.

The following year, Harrington started eighth grade in Le Mars at the Central school building, which then included junior high and high school students.

"When I came to Le Mars, it was such an adjustment; it was a large school. At that time it seemed like a huge school," she recalled.

During a visit with school counselor Mr. Galusha, Harrington said he found out she had helped serve lunch at Merrill.

"He got me to serve lunch in Le Mars," Harrington said. Bernice Sitzmann was head of the kitchen at that time.

"Meals cost about 25 cents then, so we worked for our meal and any time after that we got paid a penny a minute," Harrington recalled.

Working in the kitchen led to more than just a meal and some extra money.

"That's where I met Vernon," Harrington said of her husband, who was also a student. "He was over on the dishwasher side."

She admits she can't remember how many years she worked in the kitchen as a student.

"It helped me get adjusted to the school, so it served its purpose, and I got to meet Vernon," Harrington said with a smile.

By 10th grade, Harrington was attending the then newly constructed Le Mars high school on Third Avenue Southwest.

She never thought that years later she would be working in that kitchen.

After her marriage to Vernon, Harrington was a stay-at-home mom with their two daughters.

That is, until her aunt, Darlene Fischer, head of the hot lunch program for the school district, told Harrington she needed substitute servers for the meals.

The Harringtons lived just north of the high school parking lot, so when their younger daughter Audra, started kindergarten, Harrington began subbing in the kitchen.

"It was just whenever they needed me, serving in the different schools. It was not cooking," she said.

In 1981, Harrington signed her first contract as a server in the middle school.

"It was the perfect job with raising a family. Holidays and weekends off, summers free. You just couldn't put a price on it," she said.

Harrington added she thought after her daughters graduated, she would get a "real job," but said she was spoiled by the hours and benefits of her kitchen job at the school.

As a fulltime cook, Harrington's day started at 6:45 a.m. and was finished by 2:15 p.m. each day.

Harrington said she liked the flexibility of the hours, being off early in the afternoon to be able to schedule appointments.

She was one of five main cooks who prepared between 1,400 and 1,500 meals a day for students and staff, depending on the menu.

Harrington was in charge of preparing vegetables, fruits and condiments for all the school buildings.

That work ranged from steaming pounds of frozen vegetables, counting out carrot and celery sticks, or calculating servings of canned fruit for each serving center.

This past school year, the district started a fruit/vegetable bar offering in the middle school every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

"They had three choices of vegetables and fruits, plus salad greens," Harrington said. "It seemed to go over well."

The move to more fresh fruits and vegetables is government mandated, Harrington said.

"It takes a lot of hours to prep that stuff, but the students loved it. It's popular," Harrington said.

She added LCS food service director Judy Lubben is working on more changes for the coming school year, following new mandates and rules from the federal government for school nutrition.

At home, Harrington has changed a few of her cooking practices.

"I can't cook at home without a thermometer now. At school, we're always checking the temperature of the food," she said. "It's rules like that that we've all had to learn. It just carried over to cooking at home."

Rotating food stock at the school has taught Harrington to date her own food items at home.

"It's been very enlightening," she said of what she's learned as a cook.

Harrington recalls some of the students' favorite foods

One of the favorites was the peanut butter bar with rice crisps.

"Now with so many allergies, we have to be careful about the food we prepare," she said. "We don't serve as many sweets any more either. The Charlie Brown pie was always a favorite."

Another favorite, she feels, is the school chili.

"I thought we put out good meal, constantly trying to make them attractive," Harrington said.

One thing she never got used to was the amount of food students would throw away.

"When I was going to school, they made you eat it," Harrington said.

She has also enjoyed the interaction with students over the years.

"Looking back, those 31 years went by fast," Harrington said.

Now she and her husband will be able to spend more time with their two daughters and three grandchildren: Beth and Joe Adams, Katie, 17, and Alex, 15, in Council Bluffs, and Audra Harrington and son, Brodie, 17, in Waconia, Minn.

Harrington said she and her husband hope to get some fall camping in. They may also extend their winter trip to Texas from two weeks to a month.

In their retirement, the couple will continue enjoy country living, as several years ago

the Harringtons moved to the farm place where Vernon grew up.

"At home it's a big change to cook for two," Harrington said.

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