Children wound up from the morning’s thunder and lightning crowd under the lunch arbor at Chesterton Elementary in Linda Vista. Their voices echo under the tin roof that protects them from the light, misty rain. Lunch ladies in fluorescent green vests shout into megaphones. “Keep it down!” says one. “We’ve had enough with the thunder!”
Her command instigates a hush that lasts no longer than two seconds before the din rises again.
Just outside the door of a small building whose exterior walls are painted with giant graphics of carrots, a pint of milk, and an orange wedge, the school principal herds students into the kitchen and out through the auditorium. Rain upends the normally smooth-running lunch schedule, and no one knows what to do. One fifth-grade class is misdirected toward the auditorium before they’ve eaten. Moments later, they’re marched back outside and directed to line up outside the kitchen, where a Food Service worker in a white apron hands them plastic-covered sporks and lets them in two at a time to get their food.
Inside the kitchen, the wall on the right reads, Kids Choice Café. More giant graphics, these of a shiny-faced tomato and a friendly cheetah, smile over the heads of the children as they pick up their trays of food. Today’s menu choices include a baked potato with broccoli and cheese, or a thick tortilla topped with a scoop of seasoned ground beef and a sprinkling of cheese — printed on the menu as a “gordita.” The kitchen is also serving chicken nuggets, but they have been set aside for the kindergarteners, who will be last to eat today.
“Chicken nuggets are all the kindergarteners will eat,” says a woman in a baseball cap behind the counter, “and I don’t want them to go hungry.”
After picking up their trays, the children shuffle through the door that leads to the auditorium, where the site leader stands behind a register. They punch in their PINs, which either identify them as qualifying for free and reduced lunch or debits money from their accounts.
Then it’s on to the salad bar. They can pile their trays as high as they want. Today, they have their pick of fresh orange wedges, canned pineapple and fruit cocktail, baby carrots, lettuce and dressing, and salsa for the gorditas.
The milk comes in small plastic pouches. Under the lunch arbor, a fifth grader demonstrates the correct way to insert the pointy straw. He raises his fist and jabs the straw quickly into the pouches. Across the table from him, a girl says, “I kinda, like, twist it.” She, too, demonstrates, though in a much less violent manner.
The rest of the children at the table agree that boys tend to use the stab as their straw-insertion method of preference, while the girls usually favor the poke and twist.
Nearby, a table of girls discusses this year’s school lunches. On the whole, they agree that the food is decent. They don’t, however, agree on the specifics.
Abigail, whose fingernails are painted like tiny ladybugs — red with black dots — says she can’t stand the “potato with nacho cheese and broccoli” that was served today. “It smells really bad,” she says. “It smells like my mom’s tortellini.”
“I like it because it’s healthy with the broccoli,” says Leila, a girl with golden skin, a headband, and hyper-sincere eyes. “I’m just, like, a cheese and potato girl.” What she can’t stand is the gordita, which she calls “that pizza tortilla thingy with the meat and cheese on it. It has something gooshy in it.”
Tracy is somewhere in the middle. Today she ordered the potato with no cheese. And she put the broccoli on the side. She says she may or may not eat it later. Tracy wears a plastic headband made of purple peace signs. Pizza on Wednesdays is her favorite school lunch, she says, but more than anything, she misses the macaroni and cheese that was served last year and is no longer on the menu.
Abigail, still stuck on the potato, says, “I’m cool with the nacho cheese, but give us some chips with the cheese instead. Nacho cheese is really good alone.”
Bells ring, whistles blow, and voices call through megaphones. Lunchtime is over. Those who have not yet done so take whatever food is left on their trays and dump it into garbage bins. They stack their five-compartment “Envirofoam” trays with all the others on a cement ledge and head back to their classes skipping and running, screaming and shouting, whispering and giggling.
Salad Bars, Big Paychecks, and the “Good Old Girls’ Club”
Monroe Clark Middle School in City Heights has no fancy signage to dress up the space outside its lunch windows. Even with the menu cards in the windows that show color pictures of the Chicken Diego Wrap, Kung Pao Chicken with Rice, and the Cheeseburger, the room feels plain and unadorned. The white lines painted on the cement floor to indicate where the children should line up read less lunchroom, more warehouse. Same with the textured tan walls and the high ceiling.
To the left of the windows, a woman in a hair net, a black apron, and sensible shoes preps the salad bar, livening up one end of the cavernous space. Her name is Blanca. She wheels the refrigerated stainless-steel cart away from the wall, turning it at an angle so that students can approach it from both sides. She lays down frozen blue ice packs before placing the trays of food on top. Romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, fresh spinach, peas (frozen, not canned), sliced jalapeños, croutons, grapes, mandarin oranges, ranch and Italian dressings (both low fat). Then she adds tongs and serving spoons on top of each tray and covers the whole thing with plastic. She still has 15 minutes or so before the children are due.
“We just started our salad bar at the beginning of this year,” Clark kitchen manager Jodi Marciniak tells a visitor. Marciniak carries a temperature gauge in the pocket of her white button-up shirt the way some people carry pens or cigarettes.