When you think of what a former NFL player might do in retirement, becoming a school cafeteria employee probably doesn’t come to mind.
To be fair, Jared Veldheer was also a bit surprised when he found himself taking on the role. But when his two children’s school, St. Paul the Apostle School, didn’t have anyone to run their kitchen just weeks before the start of the academic year, he found himself drawn to the position.
“I’ve always liked cooking,” Veldheer said. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, you know, be the school lunch lady, but anyway, gave it some thought and I was like, I’m kind of looking for something to do with my time. It’s not a bad gig time-commitment wise. I’m around my kids. So I just kind of went for it.”
Standing at 6 feet, 8 inches and 321 pounds, Veldheer certainly doesn’t look like your typical lunch server, but that isn’t the only way he defies expectations. Instead of sticking with the usual meals like chicken nuggets, pizza, and fries, he uses his interest in exercise science and nutrition to make healthy yet delicious meals for the school’s preschool through eighth-grade students.
Because the school uses an online portal where parents order food about two weeks before the start of each month, Veldheer creates the lunch menu a month in advance. When his first one went live, to say his students’ parents were shocked to find foods like braised cabbage and mashed cauliflower on the list would be an understatement. Their concerns were quickly put to rest once school started.
“But I gotta say, I mean, we just keep getting more and more impressed,” said Molly Cotter, a mom of the three. “My kids love the food.”
Creating meals that the students will love is no easy task, but Veldheer is passionate about doing everything he can to make lunch special for them. In addition to making sure they get at least one nutritious meal a day, he goes all out for themed meals, even wearing lederhosen one day when he served German food.
“I’ve learned that it’s really hard — it’s almost impossible — to get all the kids to eat stuff because one kid loves one thing and the other kid doesn’t and they eat the other thing, so as long as you get kids really kind of all in on the main course, and then you’re able to get some of the kids on the sides, that’s a big bonus,” Veldheer said.
To ensure he’s making the best meals possible, Veldheer isn’t afraid to ask the 170 to 300+ students he’ll see in his lunch line for their honest feedback, something most little kids are not afraid to give.
“The kindergarteners are probably the most brutal,” Veldheer said. “Middle schoolers are, they’re awesome. But I’ve learned you cannot judge the meal by the kindergarteners or preschoolers. That would be a bad one to go off of. They’re wild cards. You never know how they’re going to respond to it.”
Despite having a few harsh (but adorable) critics, the close bond that Veldheer has developed with his students is absolutely heartwarming to witness.
“I’m grinning ear-to-ear just picturing and seeing what I get to see every day, the kids looking straight up to him yet can feel so comfortable and confident in asking him questions and trying different foods, and really figuring out what he’s doing,” said principal Michelle Morrow. “It’s just a testament to who he is as a person and being so approachable to these youngsters.”