For this week’s segment of Hometown Heroes, AY About You sits down with Arnetta K. Pugh of Dumas.
During a year that has been particularly challenging and uncertain for adults, concerns and uncertainties have been amplified for children. Whether they’re missing out on sports opportunities or at home with limited internet access, many students have been put in a precarious position. Even more so, for children impacted by food insecurity and domestic instability, life can be bleak.
Fortunately, people like Pugh have played a huge role in combating food insecurity for years and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic as a food service worker and, more specifically, as the lunch lady at Reed Elementary School in Dumas.
Pugh comes from a large family, she says, and after living in Flint, Mich. for a while, she moved back to Arkansas
“I got my GED/high school diploma through the Youth Opportunity program at UAM about 15 years ago. Soon after I got my CNA through a fast-track program, but I hated it and decided to go to UAPB,” Pugh recalls. “Life happened and it sent me back home to care for my infant daughter Saye and my elderly mother.”
As Pugh went back to work locally, she recognized that many of her jobs centered around culinary arts, cooking and service. “It seemed all my jobs were in food service: at the hospital and nursing home I was in the kitchen and loved it.”
Six years ago, Pugh began her journey as the lunch lady at Reed Elementary, saying that she was finally fulfilling her childhood dream. “I adored the lunch ladies, watching them from the glass doors rolling dough and picking beans. I told my favorite lunch lady that one day I was going to take her job. 20 years later, here I am,” she says.
Pugh explains her position in detail. “I am currently in a management position which is an upgrade from what I dreamed of doing. I oversee the elementary café. We serve breakfast in the classroom, and lunch is served by grades in the café,” she explains. “We have a wide menu covering anything from comfort food to themed holiday meals. Fresh salads made every day have replaced our self-serve salad bar. Because of the pandemic we also offer virtual meals to our students. We even deliver to various pick up spots in the community to ensure all our students are served nutritious meals.”
Pugh says that she often struggles getting employees to stay. “Once they see how low the pay is and that it’s a once-a-month check, they do not reply to the job offer.”
Pugh also says that, despite the importance of her role at school and in the community, lunch ladies are often viewed as second-class citizens.
“I believe breakfast and lunch is just as important as pencils and papers to the students,” she says. “No, we are not board-certified teachers, but we teach our students every day: conflict resolution, manners, how to peel an orange, math through counting grapes, history through why certain foods are cooked this way or the country or origin and geography.”
While food insecurity and domestic uncertainty existed before the pandemic, the pandemic amplified these societal fractures. Fortunately, Pugh worked hard to address this issue in her community.
“The pandemic has caused a great deal of stress, but we show up every day if we are not in quarantine. It has benefited our students by making all meals free,” Pugh says. “Right now there is no such thing as lunch money. We do not charge a fee for any other thing at school so why should lunch be any different. We also went completely virtual for a while. We cooked and packed days’ worth of meals at a time to serve our students from the back of a school bus. We rode down street after street tooting the horn awaiting someone to pick up the breakfast and lunch for the kids.”
Addressing childhood hunger has continued to be the focus of Pugh’s efforts.
“This school year we are serving in the classroom for breakfast, lunch in the café, on the bus virtually once a week and sending home breakfast bags on Friday evening to cover them on Saturday and Sunday.”
As the school year draws to a close, Pugh is thankful that they’ve managed to make things work.
“It is coming to the end of the school year, so we are only glad we have survived it with no major injuries or losses. Hopefully, the coming school year we are out of the pandemic and can go back to our lunches with our parents on Thanksgiving, Santa reading to our students for Christmas and just being able to receive those hugs from our babies.,” Pugh hopes. “It would be a nice gesture to show your favorite lunch lady or dude appreciation by sending them a card or note. We hang our cards and notes on the fridge. It really makes our day.”
Pugh is currently back in school at UAPB reclaiming her lost dream of having a degree. In her spare time, Pugh relieves stress by painting and making jewelry with her daughter. She also writes short stories and poetry, and has started entering poetry and storytelling contests with great success. One day she wants to publish her stories so she can go to the library and pull her book off the shelf with a smile, and continue to share her stories with all of the kids that she has befriended at lunch.