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Food review special edition: Interview with the cafeteria manager

Photo by Claire Duarte

After writing a few food reviews, I decided to go to the source and talk to the cafeteria manager: Jennie Martin. After talking to Ms. Martin, it really changed my perspective on the cafeteria food here. As I interviewed her, she gave me a tour of the cafeteria. As such, I will be highlighting the main aspects of the cafeteria throughout this article. 

To start, Ms. Martin talked about how it was when she got here in November of 2022, starting with how the food room was stacked floor to ceiling with boxes full of residual supplies (cups, bowls, bags, utensils, etc.) from the Grab-and-Go food distribution program during the pandemic, along with the tables outside. This meant when food deliveries came, it was very hard to find room to store everything. Ms. Martin told me how she took a lot of pride in tidying up things, although some supplies still remains in another room.

Photo by Charles-Henry Lubatti

Next, she took me to their walk-in freezer where food is kept for a maximum of 3-4 days. Ms. Martin then began to talk about how most of the meat products come from a few companies, and how a few products are sourced out to other companies to be processed since most foods in the cafeteria are already cooked and simply need to be warmed up. Ms. Martin also told me that they batch cook the ragin’ cajun noodles, as well as the rice bowl, and are continuing to try out new recipes. After beginning to move to a new area of the cafeteria, tables for food prep, I was told that they now make their own pickles, coleslaw, curtido, and salsa - although the school’s salsa is simply a can of salsa and pico de gallo mixed together.

Before Ms. Martin got here, during the Grab-and-Go period, the previous manager sadly passed away. Succeeding them, there was an interim manager for two years until she got promoted to trainer last year. Ms. Martin goes on to explain how she started, initially thinking they had just lost a second manager. But it turns out there was a whole new crew, which was surprising as they worked very well together and were ready to do everything they needed to do. 

When I asked how she became a cafeteria manager, Ms. Martin explained that although she never intended to work this specific job, she decided that, as a single mom, it would be best to be in sync with her child for school hours and days off. Starting as a substitute cafeteria worker in the 90s, she learned the basics before moving to a full-time position. Before starting as a cafeteria manager, Ms. Martin was instead trained to be a range cook, in charge of preparing the hot food. Because of this, she had to take several specific classes to prepare her for the position of manager at a new school.

Photo by Claire Duarte

After asking about the breakfast-in-the-classroom system, I learned that, ahead of time, a form is given to all the teachers and they are supposed to ask how many people want each of the 2 given options, and then write how many people want each food item. Then, the cafeteria receives it and puts it on one large list to know how much of everything they need to make, and how to distribute it into the boxes. The trouble comes when, excluding occasional uninteresting options, teachers do not fill out the paper. When this happens, the cafeteria only gives 3 cold items as a courtesy since they want to ensure that the form is filled out the next time. The reason the system is seemingly complicated is so we can minimize the amount of wasted food and packaging.

Next, we shifted to how she managed to reduce waste and what she still has to accomplish regarding this. Ms. Martin said that in the first 2 months, there was a lot of food waste because it was hard to judge what people will and won’t eat. If the food is returned quickly, it can be returned to stock for the next time, as long as it isn’t heated. Cold foods, if returned within 2-3 hours can be returned to the cold to be used another day. However, in the first 10 weeks, bags were being returned at lunch, and even after school, so they had to be thrown out.

Photo by Claire Duarte

Next, I asked about who sources the food that the cafeteria utilizes every day. Ms. Martin said that LAUSD has contracts with independent contractors outside of LAUSD. Almost all the foods at the school are on a two-week cycle. This helps keep the budget in order and it also means if you have leftovers that can be put out again you only need to hold on to them for 2 weeks before serving again, which also reduces waste and budget.

While you can’t change the schedule too much for dietary reasons you can control how much you put out of the popular vegetarian and unpopular vegan options to reduce food waste and unnecessary spending. When there are unpopular items like the breaded pork steak, which is even supposed to be a popular option, Ms. Martin replaces it with an item considered to be the dietary equivalent of the food in the eyes of LAUSD. Ms. Martin then explained that, using the example of the unpopular walking taco nachos still on the menu, you can only replace 1 or 2 items with something you have and not in an officially permanent way. For fruits, you are allowed to pick what you serve; Ms. Martin says she likes to keep a variety of fresh fruits on hand. For the items that are rarely on the menu, it is because they were either taken off but popular so occasionally you can put them back in, or because they were overall unpopular and the novelty wore off quickly. She then explained the existence of a 12-page guide on the nutritional values she uses when she wants to swap something. For fruits, you also need to swap them with something else of the same color to give variety. Ms. Martin explained, giving an example from her own life: “When I was growing up, I was in a very big family, and my grandmother would start cooking at eleven, and we had shifts all day long until, like, 8:00, right? So her budget was very limited. Yes. So when I was at school and that bell rang, sure, I went running to the cafeteria, because it was food that my grandmother never made. My grandmother made canned green beans, canned corn maybe once in a while, canned fish when we could. We [didn’t] cook [fresh] vegetables, so the idea is to get as many of this generation used to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Photo by Charles-Henry Lubatti

After that, Ms. Martin walked me over to the walk-in fridge used for milk and juices, as well as fruits and vegetables that must be refrigerated. After asking what her plans were for the future of the cafeteria, especially in regards to batch cooking and waste management, I was told it was more a matter of training as not all the workers know how to do it. As such, every month 2 people switch out doing the cooking. I then asked if that meant that there were going to be more things batch-cooked in the future. To this, Ms. Martin says: “Well, the government pays for the lunch program… and they decided that we need to produce more fresh food.” In essence, it is way up the totem pole.

To better explain batch cooking, Ms. Martin said that they have a mixer and a very big immersion blender to make their ranch and smoothies. We then took a detour back to another room which used to be floor to ceiling with boxes, which when fully empty she would like to turn into a store to purchase food items that are not commonly on the menu and very popular. Ms. Martin said: “I would go for the stuff that is not on the current menu like hot wings.” These items are rarely on the menu, about once a month, as they are of questionable nutritional value and are used to maintain interest in the cafeteria. When I asked about the usage of stoves, Ms. Martin said that they have six ovens and a big stove that is not in use as it is missing pieces. The stove is used to blanch the broccoli and make the sauce for the mac & cheese or teriyaki for example, although it is currently made in the oven with hotel pans (think big boxy pan that you would see inside the serving table of a buffet). While Ms. Martin said it doesn’t affect quality, you need to know how to use it, which was not the case when it was broken. However, everything with meat is precooked and/or technically edible as is.

Photo by Charles-Henry Lubatti

All the recipes are in a big book and are very specific in regards to which products to use. Ms. Martin explained that you can’t make up recipes since the ingredients are technically government-issued so you can only use those and only a certain amount. Additionally, with no set recipe, someone could get sick, and even if it had nothing to do with the meal they would not be able to prove that. While that is a very hard rule, there are competitions to make new recipes where students participate to win a prize and have their recipe incorporated into the menu.

To ensure safety, every day the staff calibrates thermometers, checks refrigerator temperatures, and all the prepared food is written down on the temperature log. This is to make sure if someone gets sick and complains the health department can prove that it is not their fault (or is) and that it was from the food they received or not having to do with the food. Ms. Martin later said that due to this push to batch cooking, which is a good thing, there is going to be a period of time when not everybody will be able to cook them well enough (they do month-long shifts for the batch cooking station). For example, the mac and cheese sauce is supposed to be much better with a thick sauce and bubbly crust. An example of this where I have seen this are the vegetarian and vegan burgers where suddenly the patties were very moist and not dry like my original review. This loops back into plans for the future where she plans to teach people to batch cook and make sure they value quality just as much as getting it made on time.

All in all this interview with the cafeteria manager was extremely educational and and insightful. This interview will really influence how I review cafeteria food moving on.

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This was a very insightful, well-written, review of the process behind preparing the food and meals for the school. We can all benefit from a stronger understanding of the roles we all play on campus. I believe that more interviews like this would be beneficial. Maybe something could be written using this interview style with our amazing plant staff, teacher's aides, etc. Keep up the amazing work! 😁


This is so fire

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