During the first week that the salad bar was available, only 20 or so children took advantage of it. But now, at the end of September, the number has jumped to nearly 300 a day. “It’s growing, and the kids are loving it,” she says. “We get the most participation from the eighth graders.”
The way it works is that children file in the door to the right and then head either to the windows or down to the salad bar at the end. The same hot entrées are available whichever way they go, and the salad bar takes the place of the sides. If they go to the window, they get an entrée and two sides, such as cole slaw and pickles or chips and salsa and an entrée. If they go to the salad bar, they get whatever they want from the salad bar along with their entrée. If students choose the salad bar, they can fill their five-compartment trays with whatever they want, as much of it as they can carry, before picking up the hot entrée near where Blanca stands at the register.
Here at Clark, and at 68 other Provision 2 schools in the San Diego Unified School District, the register is not for student PINs. In an effort to reduce paperwork, Provision 2 of the National School Lunch Act determines that at schools where at least 80 percent of the students qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch, all children eat for free.
This means that today when the children pass by Blanca with their salads and hot entrées, it is her job to count the number of reimbursable meals served. On her count, and those of the other line servers, Food Services can get reimbursed by both the state and the National School Lunch Program. A reimbursable meal must meet specific nutrition requirements.
According to Food Services’ financial operations analyst Pamela Kowalski (and confirmed by the California Department of Education website) this year, for every free meal sold, Food Services receives $0.17 from the state and $2.74 from federal funding. For every reduced-price meal sold, it receives $0.17 and $2.34. For paid meals, Food Services receives $0.28 in federal funding, on top of the $2.00 it charges in elementary schools and $2.50 in secondary schools.
Every Wednesday is minimum day at Clark. Classes are over at 12:05, and only about 400 students, out of a student body of 1140, will stay to eat. On a normal day, the kitchen staff feeds approximately 1000 Clark students.
Area manager Bernadette Kacijancic, who comes out of the office to confer with Marciniak, explains the reason for the dramatic decrease in service on minimum day.
“Because we’re Provision 2, all these kids should be eating with us,” she tells the visitor. “But when the bell rings at 12:05, they’re basically done for the day, and they want to get outta here.”
Although Wednesdays mean a lighter lunch rush, Clark is one of 19 production kitchens in the district, and the students here are not the only people this staff feeds. They also serve seven elementary schools in the district, King Chavez Community High School downtown and five charter schools. In the kitchen, those staff members who are not preparing the service lines are in what Kancijancic calls “production mode,” packing snack bags and assembling sack lunches for special programs. Clark is one of only two kitchens that stay open year round, enabling the district to serve not only schools but also community and church programs.
“Clark is busy and crazy,” Kacijancic says. As if to demonstrate, she drops her serious demeanor and says, “Look at me in my hair net. Woo-hoo! Don’t I look sexy?”
Blanca Keeps Her Cool
At 11:35, Blanca uses masking tape to hang laminated menus on the window by her register. Over the hot unit, she hangs smaller cards to indicate the items available: Chicken Patty Sandwich, All-American Cheeseburger, Chili Cheese Quesadilla, and Teriyaki Chicken with Asian Vegetables and Rice. For food safety purposes, she’ll have to wait until just before the students arrive to pull the hot food from the warmer and arrange it on the cart.
In the meantime, she sets up the garbage cans and stacks the lunch trays on a wheely cart near the wall. She turns on the register. It beeps.
Good thing she turned it on early. At 11:40, a small group of 10 or 15 children comes crashing in through the door from the courtyard. They’re 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Half of them head for the windows, the other half come straight toward Blanca’s side of the room, grab their trays, and elbow each other for room at the salad bar.
Blanca rushes to remove the plastic covering and to get the cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches out of the warmer and onto her hot food cart. She doesn’t do it fast enough. A staff member who appears to be a helper for a boy in a wheelchair stands at the register with a tray in her hand, fussing, “There’s no one to tally me up. Who’s going to tally me up?”
Blanca keeps her cool.
The rest of the children push each other in line behind the fussy woman. One boy has filled one compartment on his plate with peas, another with tomatoes, and another with jalapeño slices. He asks Blanca for a cheeseburger. She gives it to him and punches a button on the register. The next boy has lettuce and a pile of grapes on his tray. He takes a turkey and mashed potato bowl from the hot unit. Blanca rings him up, too. And on it goes for the next two or three minutes.
Then it’s quiet again. Blanca returns all the hot foods — one tray at a time — back to the food warmer to keep it at a safe temperature until the next group of students arrives. She covers the salad bar in plastic once again and then bides her time by wiping fingerprints and drops of dressing from the stainless steel.