Jefferson High School cafeteria reopens after major renovations

$2 million remodel involved replacing equipment that dated back to 1957, when the school was constructed

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On Tuesday, the first day of school for most of the Cedar Rapids Community School District, a member of Jefferson High School’s cafeteria staff tells a group of students who appear at a side door that they need to use a different entrance.

“Go around,” she says, her voice raised.

They may have been confused freshmen who are still getting used to the building’s layout. More likely, however, is that they were experienced Jefferson students who will now need to learn that the cafeteria game has changed. It’s a new day.

“They’ll definitely get it figured out,” said Suzy Ketelsen, food and nutrition manager for the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

Tuesday was also the first day that Jefferson High School’s new kitchen and cafeteria, fresh from a summer of undergoing almost $2 million in renovations, opened to serve students and staff. The district funded the project through School Infrastructure Local Option sales tax revenue as well as dollars from the food and nutrition budget. Community members will be able to tour the cafeteria and kitchen during an open house scheduled for 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29.

The remodel, part of a two-phase facilities upgrade, involved replacing equipment that dated back to 1957, when the school was constructed.

“It was well past the time it needed upgrading,” said Rob Kleinsmith, buildings and grounds manager for the Cedar Rapids schools. “Sixty years for a kitchen is a long time.”

Washington High School is set to get a similarly structured cafeteria and kitchen area when it undergoes renovations next summer, in time to open on the first day of the 2014-15 school year, Kleinsmith said.

The upgrades include a new dishwasher and new stoves, which should make cooking “faster and easier,” said Jefferson’s Food Service Manager Leta Boll.

The cooking and serving area walls pop with bold coats of purple, green and marigold paint. Both it and the actual dining portion of the cafeteria feel cool as the spaces have finally become air conditioned.

“It actually looks modern,” said Nate Weger, a Jefferson senior.

To Brenna Parke, also a senior at Jefferson, the makeover has been a big positive step. She even called the cafeteria the district’s best, a long way from the “dreary” and unfinished look she said the area had in the past.

“It makes us have more pride in our school,” Parke said. “It used to be ugly.”

She said the space reminded her of a dining facility at the University of Northern Iowa, while cashier Elaine Quaid likened it to a food court.

Aside from aesthetics, the renovation is also aimed at changing the way that students maneuver through the area. By having different food stations – with student-provided monikers including Lettuce Eat, Blue Talon and Jeffy's Nest – the hope is that people using the cafeteria will be able to spread out and reach all of the cafeteria’s offerings.

In the past, different entrees would be available via various lines stations and students would have to wait in order to get food. Ketelsen said that some people, pressed for time, might end up selecting the shortest line instead of getting to eat what they really wanted.

That shouldn’t be a problem in the new serving space, which includes a fruit and vegetable island in the center so anyone can reach it with ease.

“The flow should be a lot better than it was before,” Boll said. “Students and (kitchen) employees have more space.”

The old cafeteria was at capacity when it came to gas and electricity, which limited serving options and forced cafeteria staff to rely on commercially provided sub sandwiches and pizza, Ketelsen said. The upgrade has now removed some of those barriers and soon students may actually begin to taste the difference.

“Now we have ovens and steamers and coolers behind every station so that gives us more options,” she said. “We’ll be making more foods from scratch and buying more food that is formulated for school nutrition.”

Those changes weren’t apparent to students on Tuesday though, when menu options were narrow due to a scheduled early release.

“It’s awesome,” said sophomore Ejeni Nemere of revamped kitchen and cafeteria. “(But) There’s nothing different about the food.”

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