Usually when you think cafeteria food, you think of wilted salad or greasy lumps of what was supposed to be chicken nuggets or a brownie that definitely came from a box. Though it’s gotten better over the years, cafeteria food still has a bad rap for being…less than desirable. However, one lunch lady proved us all wrong by losing 100 lbs. in a year by eating the meals she made at school.
Tammy McRae, a lunch lady at Carver Elementary School in Baytown, Texas, weighed about 265 lbs. at the beginning of the 2015 school year. She wasn’t overweight during childhood or in early adulthood, she told People, but ended up gaining nearly 70 lbs. while pregnant with her second child. “I didn’t stop eating,” she put it simply. Within four months, McRae had gone from 199 lbs. to 286 lbs.
With a toddler daughter and her new baby at home, the stay-at-home mom describes herself as continuing to eat constantly, and retrospectively suspects she had suffered from postpartum depression. “I had no goals, no control over food,” McRae, now 47, explained. “Food was my comfort.” Finally, she decided to take more action with her life.
In 2011, McRae went back to work, take on a job as a cafeteria dishwasher in her local school district. She also took classes at the community college. “I was on a ‘find myself’ journey,” she describes. McRae easily succeeded at her job, and was eventually promoted to cafeteria manager at Carver starting in 2015.
But on the first day in her new position, McRae experienced an unpleasant encounter with a parent that ended up changing her life. “I recognized the parent’s attitude: ‘You’re a fat, stupid cafeteria lady,’” she described. “I’m supposed to be this child’s nutrition manager, and I don’t look like nutrition personnel. I should look better. I should feel better.” Though she had lost 20 lbs. over the years, she was stuck at 265 lbs. That’s when McRae decided to make more drastic changes to her lifestyle.
The meals McRae served to the school’s 720 students were required to meet many nutritional standards, ones that she neglected for herself with fast food cravings. They included whole wheat, fresh fruits and vegetables while limiting ingredients like salt and sugar. McRae decided to eat exactly what the students did. Over the course of a year, she had scaled down to 165 lbs., a 100 lb. difference from her starting weight.
McRae ate both breakfast and lunch meals with the students. She began preferring breakfast pizza with turkey sausage on a whole-wheat crust over fast food sausage, egg and cheese biscuits or bowls of sugary cereals. For lunch, she swapped out fast food burgers, fries and soft drinks for the school options. They included balanced meals like turkey hot dogs with carrots, a piece of whole fruit and 1% milk; or a nacho salad made with ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, chips and salsa. McRae even brought it home with her. For dinner, she’d often prepared one of the school’s recipes at home. Even her husband ended up losing about 30 lbs.
She now wants to lead by example for the students she serves, showing that they can also achieve their own goals. “It may not be food. It may be school work or behavior,” McRae says. “They know it can be done.” Having once struggled to fit into movie theater seats or airplane seat belts, the weight loss and healthy eating habits she’s since formed have given her a much brighter perspective on life. “I feel so alive,” McRae added.
All I know is that “alive” was not how my school’s cafeteria food made me feel. But McRae’s story proves that anything can surprise you.