This past year I had the pleasure of spending many hours in the lunchroom of the joint “McDonald-Lowell APP Elementary Cohousing Unit” at the former Lincoln High School (sometimes also referred to as the “home for wayward elementary schools”). There’s not a ton of great things to be said about a high school being used as a holding space for 600 elementary school students, though each program really did make the best of it. However, one of the shining lights of last year was Joanne Querin-Sorenson, the kitchen manager (who also responds to “Lunch Lady,” “Cafeteria Lady,” and “Kitchen Lady”).
The more I got to know Joanne, the more I was intrigued by her. She certainly didn’t fit into my stereotype of a lunch lady (which is, admittedly, heavily influenced by Adam Sandler). She knew the ins and outs of recycling and composting. She knew scores of children and the staff of two schools by name. She dropped mysterious hints about her pre-lunch lady life, tantalizing me with tidbits like “when I retired the first time” or “when I worked for the newspaper.” She was savvy about child psychology and could tell me in a matter of seconds if children were having good or bad days.
“Oh, she’s going to have a rough day,” Joanne said to me once about a seemingly cheerful little girl who had just come up to give her a hug. “I can always tell with her. The earlier in the day she comes in here looking for hugs, the worse it’s going to be.”
A few weeks ago, I was able to formally interview Joanne, using my newfound status as a Wallyhood blog writer as permission to meet her at Mighty O for a chat. [I picked Mighty O because she had once told me how much she likes Mighty O, and not just for its food. She likes that their compost, recycling and trash bins are clearly labeled and that nearly everything they stock is compostable. Joanne, like most mothers and kitchen managers, hates food waste!].
Joanne has been working in the Seattle Public Schools as a kitchen substitute and kitchen manager for five years, and just completed her second year in the Lincoln building. This next year, she will open the kitchen at the new McDonald Elementary site, which is great news for the McDonald students who already know and like her, and bad news for those of us remaining at Lincoln next year! Joanne lives in the neighborhood and is excited that she will have such an easy commute each day, though it will involve passing Mighty O at least twice, which could be dangerous.
Being a kitchen manager is Joanne’s second post-retirement career and one which she loves because of the interaction with the children. The part-time hours allow her to enjoy her hobbies, including sailing, gardening and traveling, and to be present for the teenage granddaughter that she is helping raise.
Born in Seattle, Joanne moved around a lot while she was young as her father was helping take care of a family farm in eastern Washington while earning a degree in veterinary medicine. Part of her childhood was spent in Yessler Terrace, which served a home base for many interns and medical residents and their families. She spent several years in Sunnyside, WA, before returning to Seattle in her senior year of high school where she moved in with her aunt and learned to sail on Green Lake. Joanne graduated from the UW with a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology.
After completing her undergraduate work, Joanne considered pursuing her master’s degree. Then she “fell into” newspaper work and never looked back. She got to know Trudy Weckworth, whom she considers to have been a true mover and shaker in Wallingford in the 70s and 80s, and Milton Stapp, who owned many community newspapers including the Ballard News Tribune and the Wallingford Herald. They needed someone to manage the circulation of their newspapers, things like finding delivery locations, marking routes, and contracting drivers. Joanne became one of the first women to work in newspaper circulation in Seattle.
She was eventually recruited by the Bellevue American, which was in the process of becoming a daily paper. When the American’s owners needed someone to help at their sister paper in Port Angeles, they sent Joanne to become the circulation manager. She then worked for the Sequim Gazette, the Longview Daily News and the Vancouver Columbian.
Somewhere in all that, she married and raised two children. As a young mother, Joanne lived by the zoo, and sent her children to TT Minor as part of the school district’s integration plan. Her two children graduated from the same Lincoln High School where she has spent the past two years working.
After her nest emptied, Joanne moved to Longview where she met and married her husband Dale. She retired from the Columbian to care for Dale when he was struck by cancer. Upon his recovery, she decided that she needed the structure that a job provided and applied, along with more than 1,000 others, to work as a cashier at Home Depot. She got the job, she thinks, because it turned out she had worked at a newspaper with the hiring manager’s sister.
Six years ago, Dale’s cancer returned. After he passed away, Joanne returned to Seattle to be closer to her children and grandchildren. She moved into an apartment owned by a longtime friend, one with whom she had sailed around Cape Horn in her younger days. That friend worked for the Seattle Public School District, which piqued Joanne’s interest. Shortly thereafter, she picked up a copy of the Ballard News Tribune, saw an ad for substitute kitchen managers, and the rest is history.
Joanne is very proud of the work that she and other nutrition services staff do at the school district. Her biggest surprise when she began working in nutrition services was the quality of the meals.
“They serve really good quality fresh fruits and veggies,” she said. “They’re quite marvelous. And the combination entrees are delicious. Put together, beautiful and tasty.”
Joanne notices that if children have not tried many fruits and veggies at home, it is difficult to get them to try them at school. Employing her understanding of child psychology once more, she tries techniques like asking them to try something new and report back to her what they thought.
“That works pretty well,” she told me. “They like to come back up and tell me if they liked it.”
Initially, Joanne was surprised at how many children didn’t know what a pear and other “unusual” foods were. She was also surprised by the cultural shift between when she was a child, a mother raising children, and now.
“When I was young, you ate what was on your plate,” said Joanne. “I raised my kids that way as well. Now, there are a lot of choices and a lot of picky eaters.”
Even so, Joanne finds her work with the students to be the most rewarding part of her job. She enjoys watching them progress throughout the year, especially those she gets to know through the before-school “breakfast club.”
Her biggest challenge is the waste. She partnered with both schools in the Lincoln building this year to help introduce lunchroom compost and recycling. But what she’d really like is to see the children finish their lunches and not throw so much food away.
“It’s just such a shame,” she said. “They need that food to think and learn. And it’s such marvelous food. But sometimes they don’t even try it.”
That’s one aspect of her job that keeps her coming back: trying to figure out new ways to reach the children, get them to try new foods, and help them make the connection between a full belly and a good day.
You might run into Joanne at Mighty O, the P-Patch, in McDonald Elementary’s lunchroom or at other places around the neighborhood. If you do, stop to chat for a second and get to know this hardworking woman who is helping to nourish Wallingford’s next generation. You’ll be glad you did!