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Perseverance in the Pandemic: Key ingredient is teamwork in GCE's cafeteria

(BCSD video by Dan Michener -


Published on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021

children entering kitchen, with Jackie Owens about to serve

BCSD photos / Monica Kreber

The aroma in Goose Creek Elementary’s cafeteria was hard to ignore Tuesday morning as child nutrition workers got ready for lunch.

This particular Tuesday was “Taco Tuesday” for students, and food service manager Jim Bongalis had already decked out two chalkboards at either entrance of the kitchen that listed the lunch menu for students: walking tacos, chicken fillet sandwiches, yellow corn, black beans, salsa and bags of Doritos. Students also got fresh fruit, and a pack of Raisels (which apparently they love).

When Bongalis first started at Goose Creek Elementary, he was floored by the quality of the food they served students, comparing it to what adults were served as children in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Everything’s great flavor, good recipes – Child Nutrition really does a great job of giving us tasty, nutritious food,” he said.

From bagging to-go meals for students to dealing with supply and demand, Goose Creek Elementary’s child nutrition staff members have stayed busy in the cafeteria during the pandemic. Despite whatever hardships they face, Bongalis prides his staff on working well together, and how they take feeding students seriously.

“This is our profession,” Bongalis said. “This is what we do for a living. I know that we try every day to give those students the very best of what we have.”


Rise and shine…

Bongalis previously worked at a Publix, and was considering retirement by the time a new opportunity with Goose Creek Elementary came about.

He interviewed a woman who formerly worked in child nutrition, and learned Berkeley County School District’s then-director of child nutrition was his Sunday school teacher from years ago. Bongalis interviewed with her, along with Principal Kathy Sullivan, and has now worked at Goose Creek Elementary since 2017.

Bongalis is part of a team of seven in the cafeteria, including his assistant, Jackie Owens, who worked in the fast food industry before coming to the school district; she has previously worked at Sedgefield Middle and Mount Holly Elementary but came to Goose Creek Elementary four years ago.

“I love it – I love my job,” Owens said.

Bongalis and Owens are at the school by 5:30 a.m.

They turn on everything in the kitchen and check temperatures to make sure they are following healthy processes. Owens will start throwing breakfast in the oven – enough to feed around 600 students.

At 6 a.m., a couple more team members come in to start setting up for the day, as well as the next day.

At 6:50 a.m. it is “all hands on deck” for breakfast – Bongalis said they serve a student about every six seconds. The students eat until 7:30 a.m.

As soon as breakfast is over, the cafeteria switches gears and starts preparing lunch for roughly 750 students, and all of that preparation goes on until about 9:30 a.m., when the child nutrition workers take a 30-minute break.

Once lunch starts, the nutrition team sees a new class rolling in – on both sides of the cafeteria – every five minutes.

The last group gets served at 12:20 p.m., and so at 12:30 the cafeteria team has to clean and sanitize the serving stations and start getting ahead for the next day.

Bongalis and Owens also have some administrative duties and paperwork to take care of at the end of their work day, and they leave the school at around 2 p.m.

A lot of what they do throughout the day involves staying ahead of the game for the following day; on Tuesday, while they were getting the tacos ready for lunch, staff members already had Wednesday’s breakfast assembled and ready to go.

“Once you get behind it’s hard to get caught up,” Owens said.

child checks out at cash register while talking to cafeteria worker


Continuing to serve students

As far as the pandemic goes, this year is slightly easier than it was last year (“Thank God,” Bongalis said).

Last year child nutrition workers had to prepare bagged meals for pick-up in a sort of drive-thru style out in the bus loop, as families with children learning from home pulled up to collect meals.

They are still preparing bagged breakfasts to-go, as well as half the lunches, as not all students can eat in the cafeteria to accommodate social distancing measures. The child nutrition workers organize folding trays for the students to take back to class – Bongalis said he is eager to not have to use the folding trays anymore.

The biggest obstacle is just making sure all the students are still receiving their meals on time, and that the students are meeting their nutritional needs. For example, at breakfast, the students have to get a fruit or a fruit juice with their meal; if a cafeteria worker notices a student did not get either item when they check out, they instruct the student to go back and get it.

“We’re constantly looking at the nutritional balance,” Bongalis said.

The school’s custodial staff cleans off all the tables in the cafeteria between classes. There are also sanitizing stations positioned near the entrances to the serving lines, and the cash registers are bordered by plexiglass.

Bongalis said another issue they face with the pandemic is the supply chain. They are short and out-of-stock on items on every truck because of short-staffing at warehouses. The school might not get the right food off the truck, and thus cafeteria workers have to substitute items.

“I think every Child Nutritional Manager would say the same thing,” Bongalis said.

A lot of what the cafeteria workers do in the kitchen is what they would do even if the pandemic was not an issue, as they need to protect the children from food-born illnesses.

“Not nearly as bad as last year,” Bongalis said. “Hopefully we’re making progress.”

For Owens, who enjoys talking with the students as they pass through the serving line, she misses interacting with the children because of social distancing.

“Some of them, they like to hug, and you can’t touch them,” she said.

 hands of kindergartener passing through serving line with bin for food

Treating it like a mission

A child cannot learn if he or she is hungry.

The teams considers what they do to be more like a mission; Owens said she enjoys her job because she is given the chance to feed a child.

“I think that’s the most important thing…every child needs to eat,” Owens said, adding, “I just hate the words ‘I’m hungry.’”

Bongalis and Owens shared heartbreaking accounts of ringing up students at the cash register and being told by their teacher that the particular meal may be the only nutritious one the child gets that day.

“It’s kind of shocking…because I’ve heard that so many times,” Bongalis said, adding administrators or the school nurse will tell him similar things if they know of a child who is hungry and might need an extra snack to help him or her out. “We take care of them to the best of our ability.”

When he first started at Goose Creek Elementary, students were limited to one juice box per person during a meal. Bongalis started noticing students considered "at-risk students" would sneak an extra juice box or two.

Bongalis would tell them: “All you got to do is ask – don’t take it, just ask, and I’ll promise I’ll give it to you.”

“We don’t know what goes on at home, but we try our best to take care of them here,” he said.

Their day starts very early, but Bongalis loves it – and loves the children. He takes pride in knowing he helps make sure they get fed every day.

“You’re taking care of a ton of children,” he said.

jim bongalis mixing up ground beef cafeteria staff members assembling cups of shredded cheese

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Monica Kreber