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A deeper look at food in LAUSD cafeterias

Photo of Jennie Martin, Cafeteria manager by Claire Duarte

Foreword By Charles-Henry Lubatti: 

After publishing a few food reviews, I decided to interview Ms. Martin, the cafeteria manager. For Cece Rainman’s personal project, She also interviewed the cafeteria manager but through a different lens– that being how the cafeteria manages to feed so many people 3 times a day. It is a very interesting angle to look at and explains a lot about how the cafeteria works serving thousands of people and is just fascinating in and of itself. If you would like to read my interview with the cafeteria manager here it is:

When asked about daily responsibilities in their workplace, most people might respond with tales of menial tasks and repetition - however, Jennie Martin offers a distinctive reaction, exclaiming “Eek!” Her emphatic statement follows this: “I’ve gotta feed the children. Feed the children at all costs.”

Ms. Martin is the Food Service Manager (FSM) at Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School - a vibrant and bustling public high school in Los Angeles, home to 2,000+ kids in grades from 7 to 12. I’m a sophomore at this jewel of an educational facility, meaning I partake in a capstone project of sorts where 10th graders choose a topic and a learning goal to delve into. For my project, I wanted to step into the world of Ms. Martin and learn about what goes on behind the scenes in our school cafeteria. 

I first met Ms. Martin in October after reaching out to her in an email introducing myself and my project. It was a Friday, and I brought coffee for the both of us even after she said she didn’t want any - I had no idea what to expect and I wanted to make a good impression. I don’t know what I was so worried about though, because Martin was nothing except warm and friendly. When I showed up at the cafeteria around 7 am that morning, I was first instructed to don a hairnet and apron as a precaution and then Martin insisted on taking a picture of me. “I was very impressed by the list of questions you sent me,” she tells me as she buzzes around, finding what she needs to start cutting portions of coffee cake for an alumni event that night. I’m holding a prepared list of questions for our conversation, which I end up barely needing as the conversation flows smoothly between us, chatting while I watch Martin buzz around the prep space to do everything she needs to do. 

As she cuts the cakes, she tells me about how this is her second time around working at LAUSD. “The 1st time was in the 90’s,” she says “ I was a single mom so I needed a job. And [the] cafeteria worked for me because I could send my kids off to school, work, and be home before they got home.”

When Martin remembers the beginnings of her career, she tells me about a mentor of hers who took her under her wing when she was a young, single mother. It’s clear that Martin tries to pass this kindness forward in the way that she treats and manages her team. 

Martin's team comprises nine individuals working from 6:30 am to 3 pm. Despite their modest numbers, they accomplish the task of preparing over 1,800 meals daily for the students of Eagle Rock High School. They prepare 1,200 - 1,300 breakfast servings, and 550 - 600 meals for lunch. “And for supper, haha” Martin adds, “Our little supper is at 60 [meals].” 

I think that my favorite part of the whole interview was when I asked her what her favorite part of her job was, to which she responded: “I think [my] favorite part is... teaching. The training. When a worker learns something new and they actually get it. Especially if the worker has low self-esteem, didn’t finish school, and has trouble in math or something... and they get it. They get the math on how to figure out what it is we’re cooking or how we’re going to portion it out so that it’s the right amount for the kids.” 

Martin gains immensely from teaching and training her team members. She gets to guide the growth and understanding of her staff, particularly those who may have experienced challenges in life that are similar to the hurdles that she too had to overcome. Her passion for education, empowerment and genuine care for her team's personal and professional development is palpable in the conversation. 

When asked about what her daily routine looks like, Martin adds another detail that shows her care for her team: “I usually get here early to open the doors and refrigerators and get everything set so that when the workers come in they’re ready to go. And I usually stay after 3 to try to do my paperwork. I’ve got an open-door policy so that the workers can come to me at any time during the day… if they have questions, if they have problems, I’ll troubleshoot with them but I try to let them figure out what it is, what the solution is so they can learn.”

After Martin finishes cutting the cake, we walk through the kitchen setup. There’s a huge pantry storage room, which she tells me that when she first came to work at Eagle Rock, was overflowing with excess stuff - but she’s very proud of how she’s been able to work her way through the mountains of goods. “We have local farmers, who contract with LAUSD to get fruits and some vegetables and we have big names like Tyson, [and] Foster Farms, that provide meat for us.”

It’s around 7:45 am now, and her team is busy working on breakfast and lunch before school starts at 8:30. I ask her what kind of equipment is used to prepare food on such a large scale and she tells me: “Primarily ovens. That’s what we use the most. We have 6 ovens. We have a six-burner stove…And I wanna say 7 warmers. We have refrigerators, freezers - it all goes hand in hand. Oh! And our immersion blender, for our smoothies.” 

I interviewed 10th-grade students Chloe Cardenas and Anabella Caudillo about their experiences getting food from the cafeteria. Chloe, an athlete on the school’s track team, told me about how easy it is to get vegan options from the cafeteria. “I think it’s very plentiful, there’s a bunch of options. I love the burritos especially and the vegan options are great.” 

Photo of walk in freezer in walk in fridge by Claire Duarte

In recent years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has made attempts to offer vegan meals to students, and in my experience, I’ve noticed that the cafeteria usually offers one vegan option every day. Currently, LAUSD’s vegan menu consists of 5 options, all of which I’ve taken the liberty of eating. There’s what they call a “Chik’n sandwich”, which is one of my, and other students' favorites - as I often have to speed walk from chemistry class to get one before they run out. It’s some sort of impossible meat patty that nicely resembles a chicken patty. They also have an “Impossible Burger” which is similar to its chicken counterpart but a version that resembles more of a beef burger. There’s an actually really good “Three Bean Chili”, which comes with tortilla chips, along with a “Vegan Burrito” - which is creamy beans and green salsa. Lastly is the student body’s seemingly favorite, the “Chik’n Nuggets” (which are also available as spicy “Buffalo Chik’n Nuggets”) Chloe tells me,

“I don’t eat meat, and I appreciate that they make chicken nuggets without meat - vegan chicken nuggets”. 

When I talked to Anabella, a member of Eagle Rock’s theater company, she told me about when she gets the cafeteria lunch at school. Anabella says, “When I forget to bring lunch or if I'm really hungry… I’m glad it’s free because I never have cash.” 

This is a relatively new development for some of the student body. As Karen Garcia and Jon Healey of the LA Times put it, “Before the pandemic, L.A. Unified families with incomes between $27,560 and $39,220 had to apply for the National School Lunch Program 30 days before the start of the school year to qualify for subsidized meals.” 

Now, however, this banner proudly lays across LAUSD’s food services page on their website: “For the 2023-24 School Year, ALL students will receive meals free of charge.”

The process of getting a free lunch is quite easy. I leave class when the lunch bell rings at 11:44 am, drop my bag off at a lunch table, and join the line that snakes outside the cafeteria. There are hot entrees and cold entrees to choose between - hot entrees being something like a bean and cheese pupusa, a teriyaki chicken and rice bowl, or a hot dog… and cold entrees being something like a salad, a ham and cheese sandwich or a smoothie. You have to take some sort of a “fruit” item - which could be a frozen slushy, a juice box, or an actual piece of fruit. There are endless milk options if you want that too - full fat, 2%, skim, chocolate, and strawberry milk. Sometimes there’s also a side like a bread roll, Cheez-Its, or a cookie. After you pick out what you want, you can just take your meal and go - we no longer have to memorize a PIN or have a lunch card. As Anabella puts it: 

“I think it’s really amazing that schools are giving lunch for free. It opens doors for kids who might not have the privilege of being able to bring food from home and I’ve honestly benefited from it plenty of times.”

Chloe also spoke on the importance of the food being available for free, she told me: “Free school lunch isn’t just a meal, but a lifeline for many students. We need food to be nourished throughout the school day to fuel ourselves for our academics… and our sports.”

But lunch isn’t the only food program that students benefit from. This year at Eagle Rock, the Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) program has exploded in size. Last year, BIC was on a much smaller scale with meals only being available for 30 minutes in the cafeteria for students who made the trek down during the first 10 minutes of class every day, but this year (2023-2024), a breakfast cart is thoughtfully packed for every first period class every day. There’s food such as cereal, yogurt, waffles, and burritos available every day waiting for you in your class. 

I asked Ms. Martin about this change and she told me she was told that the crew was overstaffed for the number of meals they provided each day and that the school was not receiving the funding to pay her whole team (since the school receives funding that is positively correlated with the number of meals they serve). Martin was told to fire a member of her team - she instead decided to implement a larger breakfast program to serve more meals. 

“...[It] gives us more time for learning and lets us skip out on the huge lines…It’s super convenient because some people may even be too lazy to walk all the way down,” says Chloe about the breakfast program. 

As I wrap up my meeting with Ms. Martin, I’ve learned a lot about the work that goes into preparing the food, I guess I had always assumed that everything served was just prepackaged and heated up in time for lunch… but now I’ve seen how they blend up yogurt and fruit with a giant immersion blender to make the smoothies, how all the ingredients for the salad is assembled on-site, and how even the already prepared food is reheated/cooked with care. I feel lucky to be offered so many choices for my lunch every day, with there always being hot options, and cold options, plus vegan, vegetarian, and meat options. There are always choices of milk, juices, fruits, and other sides. Often people have this preconceived notion that cafeteria food is bad, ill-prepared, or scary… and I wanted to write this article to show members of our school community what goes into making sure that we are all offered quality food. I also feel lucky that the food is always free because students should be able to focus on other things rather than worrying about whether they will be able to eat lunch and breakfast.

Jennie Martin is an immensely important cog in the machine of Eagle Rock High School, and her dedication to providing for the students is evident in the pride she takes in her work. I hope that in reading this article you gain appreciation for the effort she puts in. I’ll end this with Martin’s words:

“Try the food. Try the food. If you don’t like it… tell me. I would like to know! …If you don’t like it, come back and we’ll give you a new one. Try it! Try the food.”

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