Gerald Lehman always planned to retire when he reached 30 years of service with Rockingham County Public Schools. As the first and only director of nutrition services for the school division, he has overseen a lot of changes and given plenty of time to make sure students are fed.
But 30 years came during a time when the school division needed him the most — 2020.
“Overnight we became an emergency take-home operation,” Lehman said. “And with someone having to walk in during that and begin where I left off, there was no way I was doing that.”
It speaks to the way the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down that Lehman will experience the most unusual and change-making of times in the last two years of his 31-year career. And COVID-19 has shaped the way Lehman will view his time as the director of nutrition for RCPS.
Lehman worked with over 100 employees, many of whom stepped up in the wake of the pandemic to make sure kids kept getting fed. Lehman said he can not overstate the work they did in the face of the fear that came with being on the frontlines. For his part, he and his wife made over 100 masks to give to the nutrition services staff, even before face masks were required.
Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about making sure students get fed.
“When all else fails, just feed the kids,” Lehman said. “If you have to take a detour, if you have to step sideways, it’s OK, just as long as you feed the kids as quickly as you can.”
While the pandemic may be the biggest upheaval and change Lehman saw during his time with the school division, it’s not the only big-scale change that has occurred in three decades.
Lehman was hired in 1990 to centralize food services.
Prior to that point, each principal had primary responsibility for purchasing, hiring, free lunch eligibility, etc. Each manager had responsibility for menu planning. School lunch prices were $1.20 for full-paying students and many of the school’s programs were floundering because of inefficiencies.
Some of the principals of “successful” programs were reluctant to welcome the centralization, but soon realized that menu considerations, staffing and state reporting would no longer be their responsibility.
Soon after centralizing, Lehman led the effort to form a food buying coop of surrounding districts and has continued to serve as the informal leader of this loose association of district directors.
Food menus have changed drastically as legislation dictating for healthier food options came down. In 1990 french fries, whole milk and cookies were the norm. Now, menus must include one fresh fruit or vegetable.
And it’s not just menus that have changed; education has changed over the years as well.
Lehman regularly taught nutrition education in the elementary schools, often wearing his “pizza man” suit. That later changed to “banana man” where he would wear a banana suit to promote healthy eating. Lehman assisted with multiple schools’ special events centered around nutrition and fitness.
Those were two of Lehman’s favorite memories of his time as director of nutrition, getting into the cafeteria as pizza man or banana man and getting to talk to students, getting them excited.
“It was fun watching the kids go wild,” he said.
He said he will miss the relationships with his staff and colleagues, but will not miss the “emergency feeding” and dreaded weekend calls that the Linville-Edom Elementary School freezer was up to 50 degrees. That meant dropping what he was doing and moving food to another freezer.
Lehman described his experience with RCPS as very positive and has many memories to treasure during retirement years.