When Amy Troyer was a little girl going to Milbrook Elementary School, visits to the school cafeteria left an impression. “I was terrified of the lunch ladies,” she says today, four decades removed.
This is why Troyer works so hard to be sure students under her care today are certain to have positive memories of their school meal experiences. As cafeteria manager at Deer Park Middle Magnet School, as well as satellite cafeterias at Deer Park and Hernwood elementary schools, Troyer believes in the importance of caring for the students coming into her cafeterias.
“I love when they walk in in the morning for breakfast; some are still a little sleepy and grumpy,” says Troyer. “But they leave the line happy and relieved.”
Caring might as well be Troyer’s middle name. In addition to providing more than 1,800 meals every school day to children at three schools, she spends her spare time gardening or caring for feral cats in her Tollgate neighborhood in Owings Mills, making sure the cats are not only fed but spayed or neutered and disease-free. Her work in conjunction with area animal care organizations and a cadre of neighbors helps keep the cats from reproducing, from decimating the wild bird population, and from fighting one another for food scraps.
“I love animals and don’t like to see suffering,” she says. “What I do, it makes me happy. I know a lot of people might see these cats as pests, but they’re here and they need help, too.”
A career in food services
An Owings Mills native, Troyer grew up in Baltimore County’s school lunchrooms – Milbrook Elementary, Pikesville Middle, Pikesville High, then Parkville High – and figures she’s worked in every southwest area school cafeteria in the county. Upon graduation from Parkville, she drifted from odd job to odd job before landing back at BCPS in food services, where she would work her way up to manager. She enjoyed the hours as well as working with children, she says.
As manager, she oversees a staff of 20 and a workday that typically begins at 6:30 a.m. As the base cafeteria for two other schools, Deer Park Middle cooks much of the hot food that arrives daily at both Deer Park and Hernwood elementary schools – a logistical dance that keeps Troyer and her staff on their toes.
On a recent morning between waves of students arriving for lunch, Troyer and her staff prepared chicken teriyaki, washed and packed grapes into “grab ‘n’ go” bags for the elementary schools, and prepared trays of pizza, salads, and other edibles. Behind the counters, Troyer’s employees worked deliberately but with haste, in some cases stocking cafeteria line counters with seconds to go before students poured into the line.
“They are awesome,” Troyer says of her employees. “But they still have some fun. Our main concern is that we make sure that everyone has at least a fruit and a vegetable when they leave.”
Again with the caring. Bettina Applewhite knows it; as an area supervisor for the BCPS Office of Food and Nutrition Services, she sees Troyer’s dedication firsthand. “Amy has a passion for the students and making sure they are well fed, and that compassion rolls over for her animals as well,” Applewhite says. “I know she often rescues wounded animals and can notice the smallest detail to see that there’s something ‘wrong’ with a cat from far away.
“She’s just like that at work,” she adds. “She sees more than a mouth to feed. She sees a person.”
Ensuring a good meal
Troyer and her staff know many of the students at the three schools they serve, especially those whose visits to the cafeteria may provide their only square meals of the day. Other issues serve up entirely different challenges; “this is the age where we begin to see the young ladies starting to watch their figures,” Troyer says. “We tell them they need to eat more than a bag of chips, and we help them pick up a good meal.”
Nutrition is an important part of Troyer’s kitchen, even if it means gently nudging students towards more healthy offerings. And she understands the role she plays in making sure students are performing at their best in the classroom.
Someday, Troyer says, she would love to see everyone in her schools – students and adults – have free meals available to them. Until then, she’ll keep trying to care for students’ one by one, lunch by lunch, meal by meal.
“They think better when they’re fed,” she says. “We’re basically running a restaurant here every day, one that serves a lot of people. But there’s one thing I know we do well.
“Children are not going without food here.”
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