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St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Longtime University City High cafeteria workers dish on Nelly, lunch money and that U. City Steak

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Longtime University City High cafeteria workers dish on Nelly, lunch money and that U. City Steak


By Blythe Bernhard St. Louis Post Dispatch   May 31, 2019

Sharon and Delores Cafeteria manager Sharon Knuckles, left, and longtime coworker Delores Gardner in the University City High School cafeteria. Photo courtesy School District of University City

UNIVERSITY CITY • When you work together this long, you become family.

That's what cafeteria workers Sharon Knuckles and Delores Gardner said after 21 years together serving up hot lunches to hungry students at University City High School.

Gardner retired after this school year but said she'll return for prom and graduation each year, just as she's always done.

"The seniors, it's like seeing them all the way to the end and I can say my goodbyes," she said.

Knuckles, who has worked for the district for more than 40 years, has no plans to retire.

They have seen some "good, not-so-good, and not-not-not-so-good students" over the years, Gardner said. They are now serving lunch to the children of students they knew in the 1990s.

Superstar rap artist Nelly, a 1993 graduate, would perform at pep rallies as a student. He returned years later to shoot a video at the school and stopped by to visit the cafeteria workers.

"It lights you up when they get famous and remember you," Knuckles said.
When Knuckles started her career in the 1970s, each school had its own baker, making homemade pizza dough and bread. She once had to stay at a closed school during a snowstorm because the rising dough needed to be supervised. Her only missed work days were for her mother's and brother's funerals. Two years ago during flooding in Jefferson County where she lives, Knuckles got a hotel room in south St. Louis County so she wouldn't miss work.

Knuckles and Gardner said nutrition rules have changed over the years. They used to serve more casseroles and fried foods, including catfish nuggets and the U. City Steak, a breaded and fried hamburger with gravy.

Now the choices are healthier, like baked chicken fingers. And the workers serve breakfast and hand out sack dinners in addition to lunches, which are free to students under a state program for districts with high rates of low-income families.

Alumni still call and ask for the U.City Steak recipe, which the workers know by heart. They made the dish famous, but the cafeteria fryers were retired years ago for health reasons.

On Thursday, Gardner's last day, University City school officials surprised the cafeteria team with one last special meal: the U. City steak.