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When Candy Barber started working as a substitute in the Chiefland schools lunchroom she only wanted to have a job that allowed her to be home with her children, Royce and Janet, when they were not in school.
On Jan. 4 Barber, who estimates she has served or overseen the serving of over 5 million meals, will retire from her post as coordinator of food service for the county’s 13 schools. She is also president of the Florida School Nutrition Association.
“I figured I’d just be a housewife,” she said. “But I went there and I stayed because I loved it.”
Back then Chiefland Elementary students ate on one side of the cafeteria, separated by a screen from the Chiefland High students who occupied the other half.
The workers were called “lunch ladies” back then and the job standards were different.
“Back then you had to wear the dresses and panty hose and lunch was 25 cents,” Barber said in her office last week between retirement celebrations. “You didn’t wear pants.”
Barber said each school was in charge of its menu and buying food. “You could buy stuff right off the truck,” she said. “Back in the ‘70s you got to cook any way you want to and now the federal Department of Education tells you how to cook and you have to use USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) recipes.”
Nowadays the workers wear pants, just as Barber is on this day. “I’ve had ladies out and I put on my uniform and join them. I cannot be better than my lunch ladies,” she said. “I love it. I love just being there with the kids and part of a team.”
Of course, working in the lunchroom has its benefits. “I’m one of those dunkers,” she said referring to munching on yeast rolls dunked in gravy. And there are the cinnamon rolls that are favorites in every school. “All we do is use the nine-minute recipe, then roll it out and put butter, cinnamon and sugar on it, roll it and slice it. There’s nothing fancy about it.”
“The children now are a lot different. We used to have just country kids, now we have all different nationalities. We used to cook country food because that’s what the children would eat, not that children don’t eat country food,” Barber said. It has become a challenge to meet the guidelines, she said. “Lunchrooms are not about obesity. I give credit to our school board for putting children first.”
As she tallies up serving 8,000 meals a day for 200 days a year for 40 years on her calculator she is amazed that the number is 5,760,000 meals. “Look at that,” she said as she relaxes back in her chair. The total looks overwhelming.
Then she is back to talking about the children. “They don’t care for the fish,” she said. “They like mac ‘n’ cheese and pizza.
“Anything with cheese they will eat. If you put cheese on broccoli they would eat it.”
Of course, one old thing is coming back - batch cooking. When Barber started working, food was cooked just in time to bring to the line to serve students as opposed to cooking it all at once and holding it in an oven or hot box until needed.
“The USDA is getting back to batch cooking,” Barber said. “So we’re looking at a lot of changes to come down.”
But that is not why Barber is retiring. She is retiring for the same reason she chose to work in school food service – she gets to spend time with her two children and with her four grandchildren. She also plans to do a little hunting for deer. And she will continue canning from her garden.
That garden is something former Superintendant Cliff Norris of Bronson remembers about Barber. “She cans her own,” he said. I remember she brought me many a bag of fresh peas from that garden. I said bring ‘em I would shell ‘em, but she said ‘I’ll shell ‘em for you and I’ll bring ‘em to ya.’”
“And that’s even better,” Norris said, noting he first worked with her when he was teaching.
“She is just an all-around good person,” he said. “She was always pleasant, willing to help and everybody loved her and they still do.” He also credits her organization as being key to her success.
Barber said she would not trade her 40 years - 30 spent working in lunch rooms before moving into the coordinator’s job.
“I give all my credit to Rob Ice for being in this job,” Barber said, crediting the principal at Chiefland High in 2001. “Because he persuaded me as manager to be the director. He thought I could do it.”
She said she was not sure she could do the job. “For a girl coming from Otter Creek and a family of 12 young’ns it was a lot.” Ten of her siblings are still around, said the 1964 graduate of Bronson High School.
She also credits Norris and current Superintendent Bob Hastings for supporting her in the job. Hastings says, “She is the best beggar I have known. I don’t know how she does it.”
Barber is more humble.
“But I got to do it all. I pursue my dream,” Barber said. “What I take away is the friendships I’ve made over the years with people, with my people – the vendors and my co-workers.”