Agnes Fischer bustled behind her serving station in the the East Kentwood Freshman Campus cafeteria. The fried chicken went fast and she grabbed another tray. She passed out the hearty pieces with sides of mashed potatoes and salad to hungry students.
Freshman Alexis Thomas walked up to Fischer for a quick hello and a noontime hug. “Every day I come down to lunch and she always has a smile on her face,” Alexis said. “She serves the best food and she keeps me motivated.”
At age 87, and with nearly a half-century spent in the district’s cafeterias, Fischer fed a lot of children, and got to know generations of them as they passed through her lunch line.
“I love the kids, and there are so many things you find out about them that really make you feel good. They come back behind the counter and give me a hug every single day,” Fischer said.
She was serving her last week of school lunches before retiring June 14, giving up her 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. routine and handing over her apron.
“I’d like to stay more, but I think it’s time,” she said. “I’m gonna miss it. I’m gonna miss it a lot.”
Tried Once Before
Fischer started working for Kentwood Public Schools in 1964 at the former high school building, serving milk and wiping tables. She later worked as a baker at Townline Elementary, and then a baker and manager at Crestwood Middle. She retired for the first time in 1990, but in 1994 came back as a substitute. In 1999, she was hired as a server at East Kentwood High, and later the Freshman Campus.
“I came back because I missed it and I was bored,” she said. Widowed twice, her first husband, Richard Koning, died in 1980, and, 17 years later, her second husband, Lawrence Fisher, died after they were married for just one month.
She said others told her she was crazy to be that attached to a job, but for Fischer, it wasn’t about the job. “It was the people.”
Fischer plans to continue to work as a lunchtime substitute and to keep baking her signature chocolaty and caramel-y cookies for Board of Education meetings.
Young at Heart
The daughter of Alma and John Bouterse, Fischer grew up on the West Side of Grand Rapids, the eldest of six children and one of only two surviving. She attended Union High School through her junior year, and worked in the tea room at Herpolsheimer’s department store and later as a telephone operator for Michigan Bell. She also ran a catering company with her sister for 30 years.
Working around children has kept her young, she said. “Myself, when I see older people, I don’t think I’m old. They are old, but not me.”
But she remembers the days when school lunches were home-style and made from scratch, and when not nearly as many students attended the district, which now includes 17 schools.
Still, whatever the decade, hungry students are hungry students. “They love fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy, taco salad and the salad bar,” she said.
The job truly became a family affair for Fischer. For a few years at the Freshman Campus, Fischer worked under her daughter, Nancy Rounds, who was supervisor, retiring three years ago. Fischer’s sisters, Alma and Florence, also worked as servers and her son-in-law, Dale Rounds, was a driver for the department. Fischer’s children and grandchildren also attended Kentwood schools.
‘Food for the Soul and Tummy’
Like rice, corn and wheat, Fischer has been essential for students’ midday diets.
“She’s been a staple in this building,” said Freshman Campus Principal Michele Siderman. “She loves kids, is a hard worker and makes the best desserts ever.”
“She makes great cream puffs!” Assistant Principal Andy Kolzow shouted from a nearby office.
Jeff Hilaski, business and physical education teacher, visited with Fischer every day. “Lunch is a break from everyone’s day, so it’s nice when the cafeteria workers are smiling and she usually is,” Hilaski said. “She’s friendly and easy to get along with. … She is the cafeteria to me.”
Kristen Curtis, administrative assistant, said Fischer is special to many staff members and students.
“She cooks for me; she makes the best chicken. She brings me flowers. I always get hugs from her. I don’t have grandmas anymore, so I’m like, ‘I’m adopting you.’
Child Nutrition Services Director Mo Shamali said Fischer, whom he calls “Aggie,” has been the heart of his program, offering experience, customer service and a personal touch.
“She does things from her heart,” he said. “The kids are her grandkids and the teachers and the staff are her kids. She has that grandma’s love, unconditionally. The kids are very savvy and they sense it.
“She looks at a student not as a just a student but a human who needs love, and food for the soul and the tummy.”