MACON, Ga. (AP) — Observing Nutrina Whitehurst connect with the children that flow in and out of the cafeteria at Hilltop Elementary School is akin to watching a mother hen watch over her chicks.
"My babies is what I call them. They are very important to me," Whitehurst said.
As the school's nutrition manager, Whitehurst is responsible for the meals served to prekindergarten to fifth-grade students at the school.
"When I get up and come to work, it's not about me," said Whitehurst, a Perry native and grandmother. "It's about these babies, and we all should make everything about them because I don't know what goes on at the home."
Whitehurst said she wants to be "that one person" who makes a difference in a child's life, whether it's helping them through a bad day or encouraging them to love and help others.
She has been working in the Houston County school system for four decades.
Her job includes ordering food, making sure that quality meals are served, helping children make nutritious choices, ensuring school approved recipes are followed and managing seven employees.
She also does kitchen tours and nutrition education classes.
But the joy of her work, she said, is her time spent with the children.
"If I see a child that's having a bad day, I pull that child aside and have that child come eat lunch with me because if they're upset, they're not going to learn anything when they go back to the classroom," Whitehurst said.
A good deed done by a child also might earn them "lunch with the manager."
"I just randomly pick different kids," Whitehurst said.
"Say in the server line, a child might (drop a tray) and another child takes the initiative to go help the student before the custodian comes in. I think that's awesome ... because they took the initiative to stop getting their own tray to help another student.
"Everything is about learning over here," she said. "It's helping others, good behavior .. using good manners . . . It's just the whole nine yards."
Best friends since kindergarten, fifth-graders Emma Harrell and Tahlor Glover, both 10, described Whitehurst as "very kind" and "caring."
Tahlor recalled a time when she was 5 and got lost in the school hallways. Whitehurst came to her rescue and guided her to her classroom.
"She's special," said Tahlor, whose mom is the principal at Hilltop Elementary. "She's always giving to others and puts others before herself."
Whitehurst also is known for her cooking.
Once, some of the students wrote letters lauding the baked chicken with rice she serves in the cafeteria.
"My favorite was the baked chicken breast," fifth-grader Jamya Hickey wrote. "It was yummy. Everyone at the table thought it was the best chicken ever. Miss Whitehurst really knows how to cook."
Whitehurst saved the letters.
When the children wanted the dish to be served daily, Whitehurst said, the principal asked her to explain to them that it could be offered only once a week in order to meet the school's weekly nutritional needs.
The baked chicken is also a favorite dish when Whitehurst caters school functions.
She heads a team of about 35 nutrition workers from various schools who prepare meals for Houston County school system functions.
The credit for the baked chicken recipe goes to Martha King, a food assistant at Northside High School, Whitehurst said.
But Whitehurst also has a few signature recipes of her own. Some are included in the standardized school menu.
"Her squash casserole is beloved," said Morgan Dockery, the school system's chef. "It will never go away from our retirement banquet.
"Also, she makes a really great pot roast that our superintendent just raves over," said Dockery.
She works with a nutritionist and nutrition managers like Whitehurst to test and develop standardized menu items.
Whitehurst shared that she tweaks her squash casserole when serving it to the children to meet nutrition guidelines on fat content, but liberally adds her secret ingredient when serving it to adults for school functions.
She's also known for her banana pudding, fried pork chops, roast beef and yellow cake with chocolate icing.
Her most requested dish is the banana pudding, which is her own recipe, she said. That's followed closely by the students' favorite baked chicken.
"I think these kids are exposed to home-cooked meals ... and they can relate that chicken and rice to momma and grandmomma's cooking," Whitehurst said. "They can get a hamburger any time. They can get chicken nuggets any time."
Their parents also seem to enjoy the traditional Southern comfort foods as well, with many joining their children for the school's holiday lunches at Thanksgiving and Christmas, Whitehurst said.
Those lunches feature dishes such as lima beans, turnip greens, candid sweet potatoes or sweet potato souffle, cornbread, "the turkey, the dressing and the ham. You know, grandma's cooking," Whitehurst said.
Since she works in nutrition, Whitehurst is often asked about her first name, "Nutrina." She said it's an old school name that was given to her by father's sister.
Whitehurst started out as a food assistant at the same elementary school she attended as a child, Kings Chapel Elementary.
Back in the day, those who worked in the school cafeterias wore white uniforms and wrote out everything by hand, she said.
Many of the recipes were those of the cafeteria staff and were aligned with U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition guidelines. But the recipes were not standardized across the school system, Whitehurst said.
"The dietary standards have changed," she said. "The way we cook has changed. Like now we're making our own spices. We're trying to make everything more health conscious."
Why make your own spices?
"I can go and out and buy some spices, but nine times out of 10, I really don't know what's in that spice," she said. "But if I make it myself here at school, then, that's different."
When Whitehurst first worked at Kings Chapel Elementary, the students grew and harvested their own vegetables and "brought them to us. We prepped, cooked and served them at lunch," she said.
Frozen pizzas have been added to the standardized menu. But once upon a time, Whitehurst recalls having to make the dough and then the pizza.
Whitehurst was promoted to nutrition manager at Hilltop Elementary in her eighth year with the school system. She's also worked as a nutrition manager at Perry Primary School and Perry High School.
Her daughter, Alicia Whitehurst, followed in her footsteps and is a food assistant at Kings Chapel Elementary.
"I was transitioning from another job and I was looking for something different to get into and my mom is like, 'Well why don't you give that a try?' and that's how I got into it," she said. "I love it. This is my ninth year, and I fully enjoy it."
Although Dockery has known the soft spoken Nutrina Whitehurst for only five years, she's already "made a big impact."
"She will just gush over how much those little kids mean to her, and if they need anything, she goes and gets it for them," Dockery said. "Her customer-service is unmatched.
"She's just a really, really sweet and wonderful lady, and she's quiet and humble. But she works her tail off for the kids and for all of the catering that she does, " Dockery said.
For Whitehurst, her job has been a blessing from God and his provision for her to have raised three children as a single parent.
"But you know what the blessed part is, right?" she asked. "Working in the school system, once they got old enough, they went to school with me.
"In the summers, when I was out and they were out ... we was all out together," she said. "It can't get any better than that."
Information from: The Telegraph, http://www.macontelegraph.com