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Public school food service: $2.50 for high school lunches

What are you kids eating?

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.

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.

Their Salaries Are Unbelievable

The San Diego Unified School District’s Food Services department is a $57-million-per-year institution that serves between 130,000 and 140,000 snacks and meals a day. And though the department’s financial operations analyst Pamela Kowalski says it’s not a nonprofit institution, she’s hesitant to call it for-profit either.

“Food Services in a school district is self-funded,” she says. “So in the majority of school districts, not all, we try to make the money to cover our expenses. It’s not really — I don’t want to say a profit — because there really isn’t a profit margin. We just don’t want to have to ever dip into the general fund.”

If the number of meals served were to shoot up drastically, and Food Services suddenly found itself with a big chunk of change, Kowalski says, “It would mean we can update some equipment, or if we’re serving more meals, we’d be able to hire more people. It would end up self-absorbing for the most part, unfortunately.”

While both the Food Services Department and individuals within the department have received state and national awards for outstanding achievement, not everyone is happy. One Food Services employee who chooses to remain anonymous, let’s call him Mr. Baker, believes that money is being misspent on management salaries and overordering.

“The administration is making all the money,” he says. “Their salaries are unbelievable. We do the work, but they get paid. My boss, Gary [Petill], I think his salary is, like, $155,000, $160,000.”

Kowalski laughs at this estimation, saying, “I bet Gary wishes.” Petill’s salary range is between $97,000 and $122,000, still a far cry from the $1700 a month Mr. Baker makes on the front lines.

Baker, who worked with Food Services for 18 years, has the opportunity to visit all 200 kitchens as part of his job. Food Services buys 23,000 pounds of chopped Romaine lettuce, 1200 cases of oranges, 34,900 cases of frozen food products, and 1,182,500½ pints of milk every month. Too much of it, he says, gets thrown away at the end of each day.

“I’d say we could feed all the homeless downtown probably with all the food we waste in these kitchens per day,” he says. “Management doesn’t listen to the workers, and we’re the ones feeding these children and we know what’s going on. But the people in the ivory tower are throwing these projections out, and it’s just a big waste.”

He estimates that they waste “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, easily” and says that if the members of what he calls the “good old girls’ club” would take the advice of the front-line workers, they might be able to work together to save that money.

Director Gary Petill, whose background is in hotel restaurant management, agrees that food waste is “unacceptable.” Food Services staff is, he says, doing everything they can to cut down on the waste. He also claims it’s not as simple as it may seem.

“When you’re dealing with a menu of seven choices and two thousand students eating, you’ve got to actually forecast how many of those items you think they’re going to select at certain locations. And that gets really tricky,” he says.

Area managers use daily tracking reports to forecast future service. They log amounts ordered and amounts sold, keeping track of increases or decreases when certain items are “menued together.” They then adjust the numbers accordingly, every day. Waste, Petill says, tends to shrink each time the same menu cycles around. But there is always some food left over.

For safety purposes, food that has been out for public consumption — such as on salad bars — and food that has been cooked gets thrown away. The answer of avoiding this waste, however, is not as simple as passing it on to the homeless.

“A lot of times, people say, ‘Let such and such organization come pick up [the leftovers],’” Petill says. “If something was hot and now it’s cold, and you give it to someone to take, and they go eat it, and someone gets sick, then you’re responsible.”

Some schools in the district, such as Crawford High School in Rolando, have begun composting programs. Petill hopes to see many more in the future. Although he says his department works hard to decrease the amount of waste, he also believes it’s important to have at least a little more on hand than needed.

“Food waste is a terrible thing,” he says. “To us, running out of food is worse because that means that a student doesn’t get to eat. And we can’t allow that to happen.”

Despite his complaints, Mr. Baker says there are some good things happening. For instance, he is “very happy with the salad bar. Kids are eating more and more from the salad bar. If you look on the campuses, we have a lot of obese kids. I know it starts at home, but as public servants, we’re supposed to try to help these children eat better and to give them better guidance.”

You Can Have Chips with the Kung Pao Chicken

On a Tuesday morning at 11:00, the kitchen at Scripps Ranch High School bustles with the activity of thirty-some-odd Food Services employees. They’re preparing for the throng of hungry kids who will crowd the service windows and lunch carts at exactly 11:31. The room is filled with the clank of metal pots, the squeak of carts being wheeled across the floor, and, every now and again, a voice shouting for applesauce. Everyone wears a hair net or a baseball cap and an apron. Some of the aprons are plain and functional, simple black or brown. Others bear seasonal motif, apples, pumpkins, falling leaves.

The temperature today is approximately 90 degrees, a welcome relief from the 106 it was at this time yesterday. Still, hot is hot. Area manager Pam Juarez mops her brow with a tissue pulled from the pocket of her apron, which bears the cartoon image of a quacking duck. Beneath the web-footed creature, the apron reads, “Shut the duck up!”

“We’re using the wrong bun today,” Juarez confesses to Joanne Tucker, the Food Services marketing director who has come in unexpectedly.

“I see that,” Tucker replies, looking over a stack of submarine sandwiches stuffed into individual clear-plastic containers.

The moment is tense until Juarez laughs and says, “It’s the same sandwich. It’s just on a bun instead of a roll.”

Although Tucker may be higher up on the salary chain, this is Juarez’s kitchen, and she’s the one who makes the last-minute decisions.

“My person that was making the sandwiches didn’t find the rolls on the rack,” Juarez says. “Stuff like that happens. The employees go look and they can’t find things, and if they can’t find you to find them, they freak out. They’re, like, ‘I need four more dozen!’ And so, off the cuff it’s, like, ‘Use a hamburger bun. Just get it done.’”

This 4582-square-foot kitchen has 22 points of service, including a salad bar, 12 windows, and 9 themed carts spread around the quad, where the students hang out during lunch. From 11:30 to 12:00, Juarez and the staff at Scripps Ranch High School serve 800 meals — every day. This number is nearly double what it was before the 2009–’10 school year, when Food Services unveiled the SanDi Coast Café and introduced mobile food carts in high schools across the district.

“What we did was interview students to find out why they didn’t come into the cafeteria. And they said, ‘We don’t like to come to the cafeteria. Bring it to us.’ So we brought it to them,” says Tucker.

The district’s website touts the new SanDi Coast Café as “a new direction in food service” that “embraces the Southern California lifestyle and cuisine.”

Around 11:10, Food Services employees begin filling the mobile carts with entrées, sides, and milk. Each cart offers two themed menus each. The six themes include the Italian-inspired Riga Tony’s and the Simply Fresh Bistro, which serves salads, wraps, and baked potatoes. There are also the Asian-inspired Wok ’n’ Bowl and Baja Beach, where burritos and quesadillas and fish tacos reign. Surf Side Classics is all burgers, all the time: chicken burgers, cheeseburgers, and vegetarian burgers. The Hi-Tide Grill is an actual grill manned today by a young, male Food Services employee in calf-length denim shorts, Converse sneakers, and a Padre shirt.

The menus at each cart change on a two-week cycle. Today, for instance, a Tuesday of week two, Riga Tony’s offers a Rustic Chicken Pasta Bowl. And on the same cart, Baja Beach offers the Arizona Gold Bean & Cheese Burrito.

The carts are popular with the students. Food Services compared the number of reimbursable meals served at each school before the implementation of the carts and calculated that the number of students eating school meals went up anywhere from 20 percent to as much as 100 percent in some schools.

For $2.50 at the carts and at the windows, students have their choice of an entrée, two sides, and milk. They can also purchase Gatorade or water, separately. One main difference between the carts and the windows is that on the carts, the sides are themed.

“We do it so they match,” says Juarez. “You wouldn’t put the chips and salsa at the Wok ’n’ Bowl.”

At the windows, however, if Kung Pao chicken is on the menu, students can choose a side of chips and salsa to go with it if they so desire.

Tucker points out a poster that reads Power Up Café and asks Juarez what it’s doing on the wall by the salad bar. The poster is two years behind. Power Up Café has been replaced by SanDi Coast Café. Juarez says something about not quite being caught up with all the many changes. Then she shakes off the subtle reprimand and says, “Let’s face it. As long as the kids can see what we have and can get what they want, they don’t care.”

Kids Eat with Their Eyes

Pam Juarez didn’t work for the first several years of her two sons’ lives, but after they had been in elementary school for a couple of years, she became restless.

“You can only shop and go to lunch and take baths so much,” she says. “So I was bored. I saw an ad in the paper for a two-hour [substitute] position to serve lunch. I went and applied. By the time I got home, I was called the same day to go to work.”

Juarez isn’t one to keep track of exact dates, but she guesses it was ’85 or ’86 when she began her career with Food Services. Back then, she says, two-hour substitutes had to work 200 hours before their positions became permanent. So she made herself available to work whatever hours she could while her children were in school. After a year, she took the test required for promotion to what was then called cook’s helper (today it’s called Food 2) — a six-hour position. A year later, she passed another test that allowed her to move and become a senior Food Services worker, a position she held at Horace Mann Middle School on 54th Street for the next 12 or 13 years. During those years, she also worked as an acting manager as needed, covering vacations and other absences at schools all over the district. Eventually, she applied for a position as manager, which she held for one year before moving up to become area manager.

Today, Scripps Ranch High School is her domain, but her responsibilities lie outside its walls as well. This, like Clark, is one of the district’s 19 production kitchens. Juarez and the Food Services staff here are in charge of the breakfast, lunch, and snacks at eight school sites and two child-care centers.

Although a registered dietitian creates the recipes, Juarez oversees the orders for all the menus in her cluster. She’s the person who keeps this kitchen’s 300-square-foot walk-in refrigerators filled with 18-inch-long logs of cooked turkey salami and turkey bologna and shoulder-high stacks of boxes of fresh grapes and apples. She’s the one who makes sure the shelves in the storage room are stocked with six-pound cans of diced fruit, garbanzo beans, refried beans, and salsa and that the shelves on the seven-foot-high rolling carts in the hallway hold ample bags of buns and bread. It is she who determines the amount of food sent to the schools and programs in her cluster and she who orchestrates the schedule of delivery by the “reefer trucks” that back into the loading dock every morning. She also sends and receives weekly tracking and shipping reports and handles all the staffing in her cluster.

And then, too, like any other middle manager, it’s her job to stay in tune with what’s happening on the front lines so she can report back to brass.

This morning, around 11:20, she takes a few minutes to chat with Tucker about some of the newer items on the menu. They sit in Juarez’s office, separated from the din in the kitchen by a glass window and an open door. Her cluttered desk holds two mugs, one from a Waikiki Starbucks and one with black-and-white photos of San Diego landmarks. One holds pens. The other, highlighters in various colors.

They discuss the Szechuan Chicken Rice Bowl, the Baja Tacos, and the super-popular Teriyaki Beef and Asian Noodle Bowl. The Spicy Black Bean Burger, too, is a big hit. Some of the kids don’t know it’s vegetarian, and Tucker (who spends $4000 a year on point-of-service signage) promises to make it more obvious the next time she prints the menus.

“No, don’t,” Juarez pleads. “When it said ‘vegetarian,’ they said, ‘Oh, that sucks’ before they even tried it. Unless they were vegan. It’s better when it says ‘spicy black bean’ because the vegans know it’s vegan, but the other kids will try it because it sounds interesting.”

Spicy dishes are especially popular with high school kids.

And then there are some things that aren’t so popular, not because they don’t taste good but because they don’t look good.

“I can’t give away the Chili Mole [Rice Bowl],” Juarez tells Tucker. “There’s no sauce. You see mole on the menu, and you want to see a sauce. Visually, it’s not pretty.”

Tucker is disappointed to hear this. The Chile Mole Rice Bowl is a dish the district collaborated with a local vendor to create. Both she and Juarez agree that it’s delicious, but it’s not selling.

“Kids eat with their eyes,” Juarez says.

This, then, is why the bananas in the storage room have all been unwrapped from their plastic while they await transport to the elementary schools for lunch tomorrow. If left wrapped, they’ll sweat and turn brown.

“Like all kids,” says Juarez, “they won’t eat them if they have a spot on them. They’re very picky.”

It’s also the reason the kitchen staff uses their new Impinger conveyor ovens instead of the everyday baking ovens to cook the frozen pizzas they serve. The Impinger is open on both ends. The pizzas sit on a rack that rolls them through slowly, and they end up “spotty brown, like when you buy it at a restaurant,” Juarez says. “It really makes a huge difference in the look of it. We’ve probably doubled our pizzas this year.”

Some of the sneaky tricks the district has employed to get the kids to eat healthy alternatives to junk food are working. A case in point is the white wheat hamburger buns.

“We tried one year giving the kids [brown] whole wheat,” says Tucker. “They didn’t eat it.”

Juarez, specifies, “They hated it.”

And now, the kids are back to eating the buns.

The Cornmeal Star, a strange little flower-shaped and individually wrapped snack made from cornmeal, is a side that’s taken a little while to catch on with the students. It tastes something like a cake doughnut, but the whole grain makes it a healthier version. “At first we sold very few of them,” Juarez says. “But once the word spread, it’s a good side now. They like that it’s kind of like a dessert.”

Lunch Rush

It’s 11:28. The carts have been wheeled to their stations around the quad. The salad bar has been prepped. A woman named Trenea who is acting “senior food” for the day calls out a warning that the hungry throngs will soon descend, “Okay, ladies!” The line servers finish arranging the fruit in their baskets and the items in their hot and cold boxes. One woman ready and stationed at her window takes a quick sip from a water bottle.

And then the bell rings.

The students come from all directions, and they come quickly. They crowd around the windows and form haphazard lines. Those closest to the front glow pink under the neon sign that reads The Falcons’ Nest. Some lean in as they order so that their heads and shoulders enter the kitchen and the workspace of the lunch ladies.

It doesn’t take long for Juarez to realize that no one’s manning window 4. She tightens her apron and jumps in. “Working the floor,” she says, “is part of the job. And it keeps you in tune with how much work [the employees] do and where they’re at.”

Outside, a group of Gothy types in black and heavy eyeliner eat at tables in the shade of the lunch arbor. Others, wearing baggy athletic gear, eat in the sun, standing up and leaning against structural columns. Some scarf their food within moments, while others take their time, talking and laughing between one mouthful and the next. Clusters of girls in short shorts and tiny T-shirts mill about here and there, eating Popsicles or peeling oranges. The quad is wide and filled with the sounds of teenage voices. It’s a fair guess that most are oblivious to the inner workings of their school’s kitchen. ■

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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.

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.

Their Salaries Are Unbelievable

The San Diego Unified School District’s Food Services department is a $57-million-per-year institution that serves between 130,000 and 140,000 snacks and meals a day. And though the department’s financial operations analyst Pamela Kowalski says it’s not a nonprofit institution, she’s hesitant to call it for-profit either.

“Food Services in a school district is self-funded,” she says. “So in the majority of school districts, not all, we try to make the money to cover our expenses. It’s not really — I don’t want to say a profit — because there really isn’t a profit margin. We just don’t want to have to ever dip into the general fund.”

If the number of meals served were to shoot up drastically, and Food Services suddenly found itself with a big chunk of change, Kowalski says, “It would mean we can update some equipment, or if we’re serving more meals, we’d be able to hire more people. It would end up self-absorbing for the most part, unfortunately.”

While both the Food Services Department and individuals within the department have received state and national awards for outstanding achievement, not everyone is happy. One Food Services employee who chooses to remain anonymous, let’s call him Mr. Baker, believes that money is being misspent on management salaries and overordering.

“The administration is making all the money,” he says. “Their salaries are unbelievable. We do the work, but they get paid. My boss, Gary [Petill], I think his salary is, like, $155,000, $160,000.”

Kowalski laughs at this estimation, saying, “I bet Gary wishes.” Petill’s salary range is between $97,000 and $122,000, still a far cry from the $1700 a month Mr. Baker makes on the front lines.

Baker, who worked with Food Services for 18 years, has the opportunity to visit all 200 kitchens as part of his job. Food Services buys 23,000 pounds of chopped Romaine lettuce, 1200 cases of oranges, 34,900 cases of frozen food products, and 1,182,500½ pints of milk every month. Too much of it, he says, gets thrown away at the end of each day.

“I’d say we could feed all the homeless downtown probably with all the food we waste in these kitchens per day,” he says. “Management doesn’t listen to the workers, and we’re the ones feeding these children and we know what’s going on. But the people in the ivory tower are throwing these projections out, and it’s just a big waste.”

He estimates that they waste “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, easily” and says that if the members of what he calls the “good old girls’ club” would take the advice of the front-line workers, they might be able to work together to save that money.

Director Gary Petill, whose background is in hotel restaurant management, agrees that food waste is “unacceptable.” Food Services staff is, he says, doing everything they can to cut down on the waste. He also claims it’s not as simple as it may seem.

“When you’re dealing with a menu of seven choices and two thousand students eating, you’ve got to actually forecast how many of those items you think they’re going to select at certain locations. And that gets really tricky,” he says.

Area managers use daily tracking reports to forecast future service. They log amounts ordered and amounts sold, keeping track of increases or decreases when certain items are “menued together.” They then adjust the numbers accordingly, every day. Waste, Petill says, tends to shrink each time the same menu cycles around. But there is always some food left over.

For safety purposes, food that has been out for public consumption — such as on salad bars — and food that has been cooked gets thrown away. The answer of avoiding this waste, however, is not as simple as passing it on to the homeless.

“A lot of times, people say, ‘Let such and such organization come pick up [the leftovers],’” Petill says. “If something was hot and now it’s cold, and you give it to someone to take, and they go eat it, and someone gets sick, then you’re responsible.”

Some schools in the district, such as Crawford High School in Rolando, have begun composting programs. Petill hopes to see many more in the future. Although he says his department works hard to decrease the amount of waste, he also believes it’s important to have at least a little more on hand than needed.

“Food waste is a terrible thing,” he says. “To us, running out of food is worse because that means that a student doesn’t get to eat. And we can’t allow that to happen.”

Despite his complaints, Mr. Baker says there are some good things happening. For instance, he is “very happy with the salad bar. Kids are eating more and more from the salad bar. If you look on the campuses, we have a lot of obese kids. I know it starts at home, but as public servants, we’re supposed to try to help these children eat better and to give them better guidance.”

You Can Have Chips with the Kung Pao Chicken

On a Tuesday morning at 11:00, the kitchen at Scripps Ranch High School bustles with the activity of thirty-some-odd Food Services employees. They’re preparing for the throng of hungry kids who will crowd the service windows and lunch carts at exactly 11:31. The room is filled with the clank of metal pots, the squeak of carts being wheeled across the floor, and, every now and again, a voice shouting for applesauce. Everyone wears a hair net or a baseball cap and an apron. Some of the aprons are plain and functional, simple black or brown. Others bear seasonal motif, apples, pumpkins, falling leaves.

The temperature today is approximately 90 degrees, a welcome relief from the 106 it was at this time yesterday. Still, hot is hot. Area manager Pam Juarez mops her brow with a tissue pulled from the pocket of her apron, which bears the cartoon image of a quacking duck. Beneath the web-footed creature, the apron reads, “Shut the duck up!”

“We’re using the wrong bun today,” Juarez confesses to Joanne Tucker, the Food Services marketing director who has come in unexpectedly.

“I see that,” Tucker replies, looking over a stack of submarine sandwiches stuffed into individual clear-plastic containers.

The moment is tense until Juarez laughs and says, “It’s the same sandwich. It’s just on a bun instead of a roll.”

Although Tucker may be higher up on the salary chain, this is Juarez’s kitchen, and she’s the one who makes the last-minute decisions.

“My person that was making the sandwiches didn’t find the rolls on the rack,” Juarez says. “Stuff like that happens. The employees go look and they can’t find things, and if they can’t find you to find them, they freak out. They’re, like, ‘I need four more dozen!’ And so, off the cuff it’s, like, ‘Use a hamburger bun. Just get it done.’”

This 4582-square-foot kitchen has 22 points of service, including a salad bar, 12 windows, and 9 themed carts spread around the quad, where the students hang out during lunch. From 11:30 to 12:00, Juarez and the staff at Scripps Ranch High School serve 800 meals — every day. This number is nearly double what it was before the 2009–’10 school year, when Food Services unveiled the SanDi Coast Café and introduced mobile food carts in high schools across the district.

“What we did was interview students to find out why they didn’t come into the cafeteria. And they said, ‘We don’t like to come to the cafeteria. Bring it to us.’ So we brought it to them,” says Tucker.

The district’s website touts the new SanDi Coast Café as “a new direction in food service” that “embraces the Southern California lifestyle and cuisine.”

Around 11:10, Food Services employees begin filling the mobile carts with entrées, sides, and milk. Each cart offers two themed menus each. The six themes include the Italian-inspired Riga Tony’s and the Simply Fresh Bistro, which serves salads, wraps, and baked potatoes. There are also the Asian-inspired Wok ’n’ Bowl and Baja Beach, where burritos and quesadillas and fish tacos reign. Surf Side Classics is all burgers, all the time: chicken burgers, cheeseburgers, and vegetarian burgers. The Hi-Tide Grill is an actual grill manned today by a young, male Food Services employee in calf-length denim shorts, Converse sneakers, and a Padre shirt.

The menus at each cart change on a two-week cycle. Today, for instance, a Tuesday of week two, Riga Tony’s offers a Rustic Chicken Pasta Bowl. And on the same cart, Baja Beach offers the Arizona Gold Bean & Cheese Burrito.

The carts are popular with the students. Food Services compared the number of reimbursable meals served at each school before the implementation of the carts and calculated that the number of students eating school meals went up anywhere from 20 percent to as much as 100 percent in some schools.

For $2.50 at the carts and at the windows, students have their choice of an entrée, two sides, and milk. They can also purchase Gatorade or water, separately. One main difference between the carts and the windows is that on the carts, the sides are themed.

“We do it so they match,” says Juarez. “You wouldn’t put the chips and salsa at the Wok ’n’ Bowl.”

At the windows, however, if Kung Pao chicken is on the menu, students can choose a side of chips and salsa to go with it if they so desire.

Tucker points out a poster that reads Power Up Café and asks Juarez what it’s doing on the wall by the salad bar. The poster is two years behind. Power Up Café has been replaced by SanDi Coast Café. Juarez says something about not quite being caught up with all the many changes. Then she shakes off the subtle reprimand and says, “Let’s face it. As long as the kids can see what we have and can get what they want, they don’t care.”

Kids Eat with Their Eyes

Pam Juarez didn’t work for the first several years of her two sons’ lives, but after they had been in elementary school for a couple of years, she became restless.

“You can only shop and go to lunch and take baths so much,” she says. “So I was bored. I saw an ad in the paper for a two-hour [substitute] position to serve lunch. I went and applied. By the time I got home, I was called the same day to go to work.”

Juarez isn’t one to keep track of exact dates, but she guesses it was ’85 or ’86 when she began her career with Food Services. Back then, she says, two-hour substitutes had to work 200 hours before their positions became permanent. So she made herself available to work whatever hours she could while her children were in school. After a year, she took the test required for promotion to what was then called cook’s helper (today it’s called Food 2) — a six-hour position. A year later, she passed another test that allowed her to move and become a senior Food Services worker, a position she held at Horace Mann Middle School on 54th Street for the next 12 or 13 years. During those years, she also worked as an acting manager as needed, covering vacations and other absences at schools all over the district. Eventually, she applied for a position as manager, which she held for one year before moving up to become area manager.

Today, Scripps Ranch High School is her domain, but her responsibilities lie outside its walls as well. This, like Clark, is one of the district’s 19 production kitchens. Juarez and the Food Services staff here are in charge of the breakfast, lunch, and snacks at eight school sites and two child-care centers.

Although a registered dietitian creates the recipes, Juarez oversees the orders for all the menus in her cluster. She’s the person who keeps this kitchen’s 300-square-foot walk-in refrigerators filled with 18-inch-long logs of cooked turkey salami and turkey bologna and shoulder-high stacks of boxes of fresh grapes and apples. She’s the one who makes sure the shelves in the storage room are stocked with six-pound cans of diced fruit, garbanzo beans, refried beans, and salsa and that the shelves on the seven-foot-high rolling carts in the hallway hold ample bags of buns and bread. It is she who determines the amount of food sent to the schools and programs in her cluster and she who orchestrates the schedule of delivery by the “reefer trucks” that back into the loading dock every morning. She also sends and receives weekly tracking and shipping reports and handles all the staffing in her cluster.

And then, too, like any other middle manager, it’s her job to stay in tune with what’s happening on the front lines so she can report back to brass.

This morning, around 11:20, she takes a few minutes to chat with Tucker about some of the newer items on the menu. They sit in Juarez’s office, separated from the din in the kitchen by a glass window and an open door. Her cluttered desk holds two mugs, one from a Waikiki Starbucks and one with black-and-white photos of San Diego landmarks. One holds pens. The other, highlighters in various colors.

They discuss the Szechuan Chicken Rice Bowl, the Baja Tacos, and the super-popular Teriyaki Beef and Asian Noodle Bowl. The Spicy Black Bean Burger, too, is a big hit. Some of the kids don’t know it’s vegetarian, and Tucker (who spends $4000 a year on point-of-service signage) promises to make it more obvious the next time she prints the menus.

“No, don’t,” Juarez pleads. “When it said ‘vegetarian,’ they said, ‘Oh, that sucks’ before they even tried it. Unless they were vegan. It’s better when it says ‘spicy black bean’ because the vegans know it’s vegan, but the other kids will try it because it sounds interesting.”

Spicy dishes are especially popular with high school kids.

And then there are some things that aren’t so popular, not because they don’t taste good but because they don’t look good.

“I can’t give away the Chili Mole [Rice Bowl],” Juarez tells Tucker. “There’s no sauce. You see mole on the menu, and you want to see a sauce. Visually, it’s not pretty.”

Tucker is disappointed to hear this. The Chile Mole Rice Bowl is a dish the district collaborated with a local vendor to create. Both she and Juarez agree that it’s delicious, but it’s not selling.

“Kids eat with their eyes,” Juarez says.

This, then, is why the bananas in the storage room have all been unwrapped from their plastic while they await transport to the elementary schools for lunch tomorrow. If left wrapped, they’ll sweat and turn brown.

“Like all kids,” says Juarez, “they won’t eat them if they have a spot on them. They’re very picky.”

It’s also the reason the kitchen staff uses their new Impinger conveyor ovens instead of the everyday baking ovens to cook the frozen pizzas they serve. The Impinger is open on both ends. The pizzas sit on a rack that rolls them through slowly, and they end up “spotty brown, like when you buy it at a restaurant,” Juarez says. “It really makes a huge difference in the look of it. We’ve probably doubled our pizzas this year.”

Some of the sneaky tricks the district has employed to get the kids to eat healthy alternatives to junk food are working. A case in point is the white wheat hamburger buns.

“We tried one year giving the kids [brown] whole wheat,” says Tucker. “They didn’t eat it.”

Juarez, specifies, “They hated it.”

And now, the kids are back to eating the buns.

The Cornmeal Star, a strange little flower-shaped and individually wrapped snack made from cornmeal, is a side that’s taken a little while to catch on with the students. It tastes something like a cake doughnut, but the whole grain makes it a healthier version. “At first we sold very few of them,” Juarez says. “But once the word spread, it’s a good side now. They like that it’s kind of like a dessert.”

Lunch Rush

It’s 11:28. The carts have been wheeled to their stations around the quad. The salad bar has been prepped. A woman named Trenea who is acting “senior food” for the day calls out a warning that the hungry throngs will soon descend, “Okay, ladies!” The line servers finish arranging the fruit in their baskets and the items in their hot and cold boxes. One woman ready and stationed at her window takes a quick sip from a water bottle.

And then the bell rings.

The students come from all directions, and they come quickly. They crowd around the windows and form haphazard lines. Those closest to the front glow pink under the neon sign that reads The Falcons’ Nest. Some lean in as they order so that their heads and shoulders enter the kitchen and the workspace of the lunch ladies.

It doesn’t take long for Juarez to realize that no one’s manning window 4. She tightens her apron and jumps in. “Working the floor,” she says, “is part of the job. And it keeps you in tune with how much work [the employees] do and where they’re at.”

Outside, a group of Gothy types in black and heavy eyeliner eat at tables in the shade of the lunch arbor. Others, wearing baggy athletic gear, eat in the sun, standing up and leaning against structural columns. Some scarf their food within moments, while others take their time, talking and laughing between one mouthful and the next. Clusters of girls in short shorts and tiny T-shirts mill about here and there, eating Popsicles or peeling oranges. The quad is wide and filled with the sounds of teenage voices. It’s a fair guess that most are oblivious to the inner workings of their school’s kitchen. ■

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i saw imperial beach's marijuana grow extroidare Alex Pina serving @ oneonta elementary for one day they had organic meals that day for the kids

Dec. 12, 2010

Great job getting inside San Diego school kitchens, something the mainstream press rarely bothers to do. This is a subject worthy of sustained and detailed coverage.

http://tinyurl.com/2f28fe7

Jan. 5, 2011

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