Lisa Gaines, the Nutrition Services lead at Challenger Elementary School in Everett, walks the aisles and talks to students during lunch. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Lisa Gaines, the Nutrition Services lead at Challenger Elementary School in Everett, walks the aisles and talks to students during lunch. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

460 hungry kids? This Everett lunch lady has it in the bag

Lisa Gaines, 52, is a lunch lady. She’s also a breakfast lady.

She arrives at 6:30 a.m. at Challenger Elementary School in Everett to get the kitchen fires started for both meals.

Lunch is a whirlwind of three 30-minute shifts. Gaines keeps the show running smoothly.

Before taking charge of the lunchroom this school year, Gaines worked in food service for 30 years, mainly at supermarkets and restaurants. She and her husband, Aaron, who teaches sixth grade at Hazelwood Elementary School in Lynnwood, have a son in high school and three grown daughters.

“We finally, after many years, have the same schedule,” she said.

Challenger has an enrollment of more than 800 students — and roughly half of them bring a sack lunch.

Entree choices on a recent day: chili with Fritos, cheese quesadilla, crispy chicken burger, sunflower seed butter sandwich and an Italian sub.

“We served 460 lunches,” she said.

The salad bar included lettuce, carrots, apples and, for the first time, parsnips.

“They try to expose them to different things,” Gaines said. “We had persimmons around the holidays.”

The Mukilteo School District determines the menu for Challenger. Cooks from the central kitchen prepare much of the grub for breakfast and lunch.

Gaines and her staff take it to the finish line — and the front line.

Talk about your job.

We serve about 440 lunches a day. Sometimes as many as 490, sometimes as low as 415.

For breakfast, we’ll usually do about 225-230.

You don’t know in advance so you basically over-prepare. You can kind of guesstimate what the kids like. Certain things they really like and certain things that aren’t their favorite. I take all that into account. Your goal is not to run out of any one entree.

What are some misconceptions about school lunches?

I want people to know that a lot of effort goes into providing nutritious and tasty food, all the way from our central kitchen staff who make several from-scratch items that they send out to us daily to those of us preparing the lunches in the schools. All of us love what we do and try to impart that in our service to the kids.

What is the correct term for lunch lady?

Lunch lady. That’s what we are.

Do you get recognized outside of school?

It’s so funny because I’ll see my kids up at Fred Meyer … and they say, “That’s my lunch lady!” And they get so excited. My mom is a retired Edmonds School District teacher and that was what happened when we’d be grocery shopping with her. And it happens to my husband all the time.

What are some lunch lady myths?

That lunch ladies are old and grouchy. Maybe those are the days of old. I think we have some great women working at our schools — and there are two “lunch guys” that I know of.​

What is the most popular item?

Cheesy nachos. The kids get very excited on nacho day, and chicken nuggets are always a hit as well.

Speaking of cheesy nachos…

I dropped a whole thing of nacho cheese sauce when I was getting it out of the warmer. It made this huge splat. I’m not sure I want my boss to know that.

How do you get kids to eat their vegetables?

It can be challenging to get the kids to eat their veggies, but they have a good variety of fresh fruit and vegetables that they can choose from at the salad bar and those choices change daily.

What was your favorite school lunch as a kid?

Mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy. I used to try to get seconds. Even if I get a whiff of that smell, it kind of brings me back.

If money was no object, what would you serve?

I would love to serve the kids foods from around the world so they could learn to be more adventurous eaters, open to trying new things. We could try a different country every week.

If you could have lunch with anyone, who would it be with and why​?​

There is a famous chef named Andrew Zimmern. He has a dream job: He travels the world and meets new people and learns about their culture and food. He basically travels and eats for a living.

Finish this sentence​: ​People would be shocked to know​…

That I have a culinary degree.

What are some things in your fridge at home?

I have some leftover pho, coconut water, a marinating brisket and some grits that I made for breakfast.

What is your guilty pleasure?

My self indulgence (guilty pleasure, although I don’t feel guilty) would be somewhat regular trips to the spa.

What question should I have asked?

I am really enjoying being a lunch lady. The kids are wonderful and Mukilteo Nutrition Services makes the effort to make the food not only nutritious, but fun and interesting for the kids.

Do you know someone we should get to know better? Send suggestions to or call 425-339-3443.

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