National School Lunch Hero Day: honoring our lunch workers

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Leila Touati

At 9 A.M., a school lunch worker assembles a side of corn, beans, and spices for students to enjoy during lunch.

Leila Touati, AVT Editor-in-Chief

Every lunch period at Amador, students jostle in long lines; they speed through the cafeterias, shove foil-wrapped meals onto their trays, and leave as quickly as they enter. But through the double-doors to the right of the cafeteria exit, a hidden world full of hardworking women — the “Lunch Ladies” — lead the way for nutritional meals in the Pleasanton Unified School District. 

There is no word better to describe the kitchens behind the cafeteria other than ‘clean.’ Grey metal countertops gleam with an organized chart of dishes and nutritional values hanging from the side. Even at 7 a.m. in the morning, the kitchen is full of life: lunch workers busy themselves with organizing supplies and placing baking trays in heavy-duty ovens, and packing sides for the upcoming lunch period.

For Child Nutrition Assistant Zari Javaheri, she considers the school her second home. Working for the district for almost 20 years, she cherishes seeing the students every day and loves contact with the kids. For her, looking “into the beautiful eyes when they’re laughing, talking” is her favorite part of her job. 

Javaheri started her work when her children were in kindergarten, helping out in the cafeteria and classrooms wherever she was needed, not only to feel closer to her kids, but to give the same love to every student who enters PUSD.

With an enormous emphasis on learning something new every day, Javaheri finds joy in baking French pastries and dishes to reconnect with her mother from France. Javaheri grins as she mentions her new adventure in “learn[ing] sign language” to communicate with every student in Pleasanton schools. 

With her laborious work in the kitchens and cafeteria, Javaheri loves the Pleasanton schools with all her heart, taking care of the students as if they were her own. 

“They have to enjoy and be happy and ready to go back to the classroom for their study. That’s my policy,” smiles Javaheri, patting her chest. “This is from my heart.”

Many of the women operating the cafeteria have worked in the district for years, being the familiar faces that students have the pleasure of seeing every day. A relatively new face at Amador is Maly Pra, the Child Nutrition Coordinator. 

While students slept in during spring break and relaxed without the pressure of homework and school projects, Pra was in the kitchen preparing menus and learning the tricks of the trade necessary to work at Amador.

Born with a passion for food, Pra loves cooking for people — holding gatherings for her friends and family to try new recipes that she wholeheartedly creates for them to taste. Majoring in Nutrition and Dietetics, Pra found her calling at PUSD and has continued to take care of people through cooking and baking for as long as she can remember.

[The students] have to enjoy and be happy and ready to go back to the classroom for their study. That’s my policy. This is from my heart. ”

— Zari Javaheri

Every job has its challenges, and working as a school lunch worker is no different. While other organizations worked remotely during the 2020 pandemic, the Child Nutrition department in Pleasanton schools did not stop operations  — they continued to go into schools and provide meals for students who needed them.

“Our ladies come in every single day making sure that food goes out to the kids. Things like that are what people don’t see, they don’t see how much work goes on behind the scenes and especially with all the state and federal guidelines that we have to comply with like sodium, fat, calories, whole grain,” Pra laughs. “Whole grain pasta, whole grain rice, whole grain bread. Making it taste good is really hard and making it comply with the federal guidelines is really hard. That’s where recipe developing comes in.”

May 6 was National School Lunch Hero Day, and while it is important to appreciate all district workers in Pleasanton schools, Amador’s lunch workers earned a special day to feel even more honored and valued for all their hard work.

Having worked at the district for 28 years, Theresa Burke has seen it all — with six kids going through Pleasanton schools, she found joy in being a part of the Child Nutrition department to be closer to her children. 

In all those years, Burke has ‘loved getting up every day and coming to work and just doing what [she] does.” Working with all the staff and feeling valued and appreciated make all the difference to her; May 6 definitely puts a smile on her face.

“I love my job — I love getting up every day and coming to work and just doing what I do. My favorite part is working with our staff and people, and just feeling valued and appreciated it helps you like your job and just knowing what I’m doing is important and feeding kids is an important part of learning so I value that,” said Burke.

In the past couple of years before the pandemic, Child Nutrition Services has served about 2500 students, and now that number has risen to 7000. The perseverance and dedication that school lunch workers have shown the district is admirable, and students admire all they do.

Trisha Sukale (’22), a senior at Amador, enjoys the lasagna and breadsticks served in the cafeteria on Wednesdays. With tough classes in her schedule this year, lunch period is a time for her to relax and laugh with friends, and a tasty meal goes a long way. 

“The lunch ladies are always really nice and helping us and they make the cafeteria a really nice environment for everyone. All the teachers get a lot of recognition but I think sometimes we forget that the people that are serving us lunch are also very important and we should appreciate them more,” said Sukale.

When asked what students can do to make their jobs easier, many of the women were at a loss, unsure how to answer. They work 10 to 12 hour days and don’t request for much in return, happy to simply interact with the students. But Pra and Burke shared the same wise advice.

“It’s always good to have feedback — sometimes you don’t like the negative feedback but that really does help [us] improve. We haven’t changed our food since COVID-19 even though things have changed. We’ve tried to bring in the same quality of food so it’s always good to get feedback. I think we can all work together to try to get them things that they like by giving us feedback,” said Burke.