HAMPTON, Neb. — Blame the broccoli. Blame the mandarin oranges. Blame all their cousins, from apples to yams, for removing Mrs. Penner's butter bars from the school lunch counter.
Then blame Mrs. Obama for removing Mrs. Penner.
So goes the thinking in this no-stoplight village of 423 people about 20 minutes northwest of York.
When the new federal school nutrition mandates went into effect this year, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, fresh-baked brownies, cookies and other sugary goodies disappeared from the school menu. And Sharon Penner, who has been feeding schoolchildren here for 43 years, decided it was a sign from above to retire.
Friday will be the last school lunch the 70-year-old prepares for the Hampton Hawks.
Mrs. Penner is hanging up her apron.
“She is?” asked an incredulous sixth-grader named Treavar Pekar. He stopped cold from scrubbing some of the six tables in the small cafeteria when I broke the news after lunch.
That about sums up the community response.
Superintendent Holly Herzberg halfheartedly put an ad in the local paper saying she wants someone “just like Sharon.”
Marc Peters, a 47-year-old agronomist at the co-op in town, bemoaned Mrs. Penner's departure, saying he ate her cooking for the 12 years he attended Hampton schools.
“If you had a bad day at school,” he said, “at least you have a decent lunch to go to.”
That remains true, said school secretary Sharon Klute, whose mother was lunch lady before Sharon Penner took over. Klute said Mrs. Penner goes above and beyond the kitchen — helping with catered events, making an extra pan of caramel rolls for the teachers, rooting on the students in all their activities.
“We're never going to find anybody that's like Sharon,” Klute said, “unless my mom comes back in. And she's 85.”
It's not hard to see why Sharon Penner is popular in Hampton. For starters, she bakes cinnamon rolls for chili day, makes fresh bread several times a week and has made just about every treat you can imagine, including homemade root-beer candy.
It took her three batches to perfect it, but each Hampton child got a root-beer candy on standardized testing day.
She also pitches in to do work outside the kitchen. Like keep the grounds. Or serve as elementary school custodian, which she did after telling a superintendent she didn't need any chemicals to do her cleaning when Chlorox and some vinegar would suffice. She even helped paint the word “HAWKS” on the bricks outside the high school.
Sharon Penner has served generations of Hampton schoolchildren. She has been as regular as the village whistle that sounds four times a day. Her white house, just a block away, is visible from the school. It's as tidy as the pristine kitchen she has worked in since 1970.
Back then, she took the job because her two school-age children were in that red-brick building all day, and it was a way to see them and be home when they got home. Plus it brought in a second income to complement her husband's job at the co-op.
And she liked cooking — baking, particularly. She'd get into the holidays, coloring her bread dough orange for Halloween, red for Valentine's Day.
Over the years, as first her children and then her grandchildren went through Hampton schools, Mrs. Penner perfected the art and science of mass cooking, from menu planning and ordering to filling out federal lunch reports. She knew just how much to make so there wouldn't be wasted leftovers.
This kind of economy and hard work define a school that has managed to stay open at a time when rural communities across Nebraska are closing theirs. About seven years ago, when the Hampton school district was $500,000 in debt, then-new Superintendent Herzberg got 80 percent of the village's voters to agree to being taxed more to get the district out of the hole.
The budget is now balanced, the tax levy has gone down, and enrollment is holding steady.
The only controversy this year has been the lunch menu, which changed last fall as the nutrition standards were being phased in.
The standards, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law in 2010, push fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. Schools set calorie limits for older children, and future standards will aim to reduce sodium content.
Translated: No more butter bars. No more chocolate cake, apple crisp, cookies or brownies.
Kids at first complained. Parents fretted they were going hungry during the day. More than a few grumbled about the first lady, who had pushed for the nutritional changes.
Mrs. Penner had to explain that no one was starving and that there was plenty to eat — just a different plenty.
Radishes and carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, applesauce and orange slices. Everyone calmed down and some students even adapted.
The day I visited, first-graders had filled their trays with vegetables. Danielle Dowling had cucumber wheels, applesauce and pear slices on her tray. Hayden Farris had pear slices, a cup of mandarin orange slices, four baby carrots and ... a radish.
“Yep,” he said. “I always take them.”
Sixth-grader Ruth Mathson peeled a clementine and extolled the virtues of cauliflower, though she and the other sixth-graders seemed to universally choose the potato as their vegetable. But no veggie could hold a candle to cinnamon rolls.
“A-mazing,” sighed Alexis Gyhra. “Love it.”
Cinnamon rolls? That's a don't-ask-don't-tell.
The Hampton district adheres to the new lunch rules, but it's been a big stress on Mrs. Penner.
“I can't bake,” she said. “No desserts. There's so much book work.”
But as with any federal regulation, there are loopholes.
Fresh bread can be served to elementary-age children. Older kids have to pay for it — a distinction that allows them to have the bread without it counting against the school meals' calorie and carbohydrate numbers.
And Mrs. Penner found a way to make dessert using a healthy ingredient like pumpkin.
The day I visited, Mrs. Penner and helper Judy Hitzemann fed 131 Hampton students. They scooped up a goulash made with whole-grain noodles and ground beef, peas and an array of fruits and veggies. The cafeteria was a blur of second helpings on the goulash and, afterwards, table clean-up duty. Students, including the littlest ones, bus their own trays and trade off table-washing duty.
Mrs. Penner matched their energy. She was a whirl of dishwashing, food-storing and counter-wiping.
She had opened the cafeteria door at 5:20 a.m., just as she always has, to get the coffee on for bus drivers and to start the bread.
Now it was after 1 p.m., and she figured that by 2 she'd lock up and walk across the street to her home.
There she can bake as much as she likes.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, email@example.com, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH