Helen Macke, of Red Bud, doesn't mind waking up at 2 a.m. in order to get to work by 4. After all, there are hungry kids to feed.
Macke, 61, enjoys her job as the lead entree cook for Belleville School District 118. Her favorite entrees to cook -- fettuccine alfredo and tacos.
"I think we have the world's best taco meat," Macke said, as she was counting flour tortillas for chicken soft tacos.
She also had a large batch of made-from scratch syrup cooking away in a 40-gallon steam kettle.
District 118 Food Services Director Steve Ebbesmeyer said the district makes a lot of food from scratch, including spaghetti, sloppy joes, cookies and banana bread.
Macke's least favorite entree to cook -- tuna salad. "I can't stand tuna salad," she said.
If she gets overwhelmed or behind, Macke said other cooks jump in. "I have a lot of help," she said. "We work as a team here."
"It's everyone working together to get the job done," Ebbesmeyer said.
In all, District 118 has 45 full- and part-time food service employees to make and deliver on average 11,000 meals every school day, according to Ebbesmeyer.
District 118 prepares meals for not only its 11 schools, but 19 other schools at a food preparation center it operates at West Junior High School. The district provides meals for other private and public schools including Holy Trinity in Fairview Heights, Freeburg Community Consolidated School District 70 and Whiteside School District 115.
Overall, last year the district served close to 2 million meals -- 872,000 meals for District 118 schools and 1,086,000 meals for co-op schools, Ebbesmeyer said. The total budget for District 118 food services is $3.4 million.
Roughly 80 percent of District 118 students ate district-prepared lunches last school year, according to Ebbesmeyer, and 40 percent participated in breakfast.
Typically, the district prepares entrees for the following day. The district's main cafeteria at West Junior High has three giant steam kettles; 10 convection ovens; a 20-gallon mixer; an industrial meat slicer; a large-capacity dishwashing station, and a slew of refrigeration and freezer units. Three large freezer units are stored outside behind the school on Royal Heights Road.
The entrees and other items including after-school snacks and breakfast entrees are delivered to the schools in St. Clair County via refrigerated trucks. Ebbesmeyer said each individual school cafeteria has employees who heat the food up and serve students.
The meals students receive have been revamped during the last year as stricter regulations came down from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. The regulations, Ebbesmeyer said, include serving more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and reducing the sodium level of entrees.
For example, the district uses whole grain flour to make its homemade cookies. "There's a minimal amount of difference in taste," Ebbesmeyer said.
"We taste test and sample everything," Macke said.
Ebbesmeyer estimated district cooks bake "a couple thousand cookies a day" with the most popular kind being chocolate chip.
By the start of the 2014-15 school year, all grains must be 100 percent whole grain, he said.
The new requirements cost the district an additional 16 cents per meal, he said, with 6 cents of that additional cost reimbursed by the USDA. After the reimbursement, the district spent an additional $48,000 on meals for its students last school year as a result of the new regulations, Ebbesmeyer said.
Macke's guide is a recipe book that's been passed down through the years. "We keep them in the family," said Ebbesmeyer, who's been the food services director for eight years. He's worked in school food service for a total of 24 years.
The most popular entree is a staple for children -- chicken nuggets/strips and corn, according to Ebbesmeyer. This school year, he said the district will begin using chicken nuggets made with whole grain breading.
Macke started as a dishwasher and then worked as a lead food server at Jefferson Elementary School for 12 years before moving to the district's main cafeteria.
"I miss not serving, because you watch them (students) grow up," Macke said. "They used to call me Miss Helen."
The most important aspect of her job, she said, is "pleasing the children. It's got to taste good and look good or they are not going to eat it," she said.
District 118's monthly food order list includes:
* 99 cases of Go-Gurt (plastic tubes of yogurt) for a total of 6,336
* 72 cases of sausage patties for a total of 5,760
* 45 cases of double stuff cheese pizza for a total of 4,320 slices
* 160 cases of romaine lettuce for a total of 1,920 pounds of romaine
* 146,000 pints of milk
AT A GLANCE